While the people of Benghazi were ejecting the Islamist militias from their city last month, a smaller but equally remarkable event was taking place 600 kilometres away, in Tripoli. In the former French embassy, some 70 people were attending the first public screening of Libyan-made films since last year's revolution (and possibly a long time before that). There were just six short documentaries, around five minutes each.

In the final film, Granny's Flags, a Tripoli grandmother recounts how, during the revolution, women had to bake bread before the electricity ran out, and how she'd been kept busy sewing makeshift versions of Libya's reinstated national flag.

"We are happy that Muammar died ... He used to smother us," she says, before telling off Libya's toppled dictator as if he were her own son: "Gaddafi, Gaddafi, Gaddaaaaafi. We got rid of him." And she spreads her hands as if clearing him off the table. The audience burst into applause.

New freedoms of expression are being tested in Libya and elsewhere, post-Arab spring, but the subject of cinema has become particularly pertinent in recent weeks, largely because of a film that has nothing to do with the country itself.

The Innocence of Muslims has become the most famous movie that practically nobody has seen - a clumsy but effective attempt to provoke the Muslim world by depicting the Prophet Mohammed (a sacrilege in itself), and portraying him as a fraud and a degenerate. Benghazi, Libya's second city, was an early flashpoint, and the killing of the United States ambassador Christopher Stevens and three others there on September 11 fanned the flames of anti-American sentiment across the Arab world. Conversely, Western media responded with knee-jerk condemnations of "Muslim rage". The narrative of the Arab spring threatened to take a U-turn.

There is now a cultural vacuum in Libya, as well as a political one, thanks to the Gaddafi regime.

"There was no filmmaking culture here at all under Gaddafi," says Naziha Arebi, director of Granny's Flags. "He didn't want anybody to be more famous than him. Even the football players had just numbers on their shirts, because he didn't want anyone to know their names. He certainly wasn't going to let anybody be a film director."

Arebi is half-English, half-Libyan. She grew up in Hastings, on England's south coast, studied at the Royal College of Art, and worked a little in film circles before coming to Libya for the first time in September last year. It's her own granny in the film, she explains.

"We've seen the common view of the revolution but we don't hear much about the older, normal people. I thought it was really important to show it wasn't just these boys going out and fighting - everyone was involved on some level."

Her film, and the five others that screened in Tripoli, were part of a project initiated by the British Council's film division, with the Scottish Documentary Institute (SDI). They held a workshop in Tripoli last summer that resulted in three films, including Arebi's. They returned to do the same in Benghazi - though by this time security issues prevented the British contingent from leaving Tripoli, so the Benghazi filmmakers had to travel back and forth between the two cities.

All the films focus on ordinary people: a novice graffiti artist, a fisherman, a car salesman, a museum guard (who describes how he hid artefacts to protect them from looting) and a female medical student learning to drive. "You're a doctor, so if you hit someone, at least you can save them," her brother tells her.

The Benghazi team had just finished their films the day of the Tripoli screening. They are all young men, mostly students and part-time photographers.

"We brought out a lot of up-to-date equipment, but they already had their own," says Noe Mendelle, director of the SDI. "What they didn't have was a knowledge of film language. A lot of them had done TV-style films or reports, quite macho stuff. It was new to think about different ways of portraying a character, or using sound to tell a story."

This could be seen by some as a top-down exercise in exporting cultural expertise, but it's as much a bottom-up one. The regime's lies about the progress of the conflict, and the rebels' brutality towards civilians, were regularly dispelled by amateur footage posted on blogs, YouTube, Facebook and Twitter. Moving from this to short documentaries could be a crucial step in developing a film culture.

ACCORDING TO LOCAL film critic Ramadan Salim, there were six features and some 100 documentaries made in Libya during the Gaddafi era, but few people have seen them and their whereabouts are unknown. There is just one functioning cinema in Tripoli, playing mostly Egyptian and Dubai-made commercial films. Bootleg DVDs of Hollywood blockbusters are widely available for as little as one dinar (HK$6) each. The Twilight franchise is huge.

Gaddafi did, however, have a hand in two films everybody in Libya knows, both starring the ethnically flexible Anthony Quinn, and both directed by Moustafa Akkad, the Hollywood-based Syrian who went on to produce the Halloween franchise. The first and most notorious is The Message (also known as Mohammed, Messenger of God), an expensive account of the birth of Islam. Unlike The Innocence of Muslims, The Message respects the taboo against depicting the Prophet Mohammed; instead it uses point-of-view shots, implying Mohammed's presence via musical cues, and having other characters repeat his unspoken words (Quinn plays the Prophet's uncle).

Finding no funding in the US, Akkad turned to Gaddafi. Even so, many Arab countries refused to believe that The Message did not depict the Prophet and would not screen it. The film triggered a 39-hour siege of three office buildings in Washington DC, in the US, in 1977, involving 149 hostages and the death of a reporter.

A few years later, Akkad shot Lion of the Desert, a biopic of Libyan hero Omar Mukhtar, who fought against the invading Italians in the 1920s. Alongside Quinn, it stars Oliver Reed, John Gielgud and Rod Steiger, who played Benito Mussolini. Like The Message, it was a commercial failure, but both films have played regularly on Libyan television since they were made.

In November 2005, Akkad was killed in a suicide bombing at the hotel he was staying at in Amman, Jordan.

DOES ESTABLISHING a film culture really matter in a precarious new democracy with so many other pressing needs?

Absolutely, says Mohamed Maklouf, a Libyan filmmaker and former dissident. "Visual culture started the whole revolution," he says. "If we didn't see these images, which changed people's minds around the world, nothing would have happened. So film is very important.

"Usually around the Arab world it has been tightly controlled, like Hitler did, with [Joseph] Goebbels controlling the image of the Nazis. Some countries, like Egypt, give a little bit of freedom to filmmakers, but then you still have the problem of the censor."

Few Libyans had heard of Maklouf until recently. He has spent the past 36 years in exile, mostly in Britain, where he has worked as a journalist and filmmaker. He has made films about censorship, and about other Libyan exiles, including the current interim president, Mohamed Yousef el-Magariaf.

Now in his early 50s, Maklouf is about to relocate to Benghazi permanently. He has big plans, starting with a film festival this December. "The famous taboos for Arab cinema are sex, religion and politics," he says. "We're not in the mood for sex now, religion is very touchy, but political expression must be shown."

In the longer term, Maklouf wants to set up a permanent filmmaking institute in Benghazi. Funding is still an issue, but he is preparing a fictional short film, using untrained actors, and he has been collecting footage to make a definitive first-hand documentary of the uprising.

Other exiled or expatriate Libyans are now returning to play their part. Over a coffee in the souk, Khaled Mattawa, a Libyan poet and professor at the University of Michigan, in the US, tells me he plans to screen a series of European films here. His ceramicist wife, Reem Gibriel, has arranged for a series of artists' videos to be projected onto Tripoli's streets. A new youth group, the National Awareness Movement, plans to hold the first Tripoli Human Rights film festival next month.

"When I first came here last September, the atmosphere was electric," Arebi, the Granny's Flags director, says. "Tripoli had just been liberated and everybody was still in this revolutionary spirit."

Her short is now lined up to play festivals in Britain and the US.

"It's hard making films in Libya, full stop," she says. Being a female filmmaker is even harder. "My Libyan family thinks I'm doing a man's job. But I'm sure there are a lot of women here who would like to be filmmakers, and there are a lot of stories to be told. We've had a patriarchal society for a very long time."

She also recalls having her camera snatched from her hand in August, just across the street from where we're talking, for taking pictures of Salafi militants demolishing a Sufi mosque - a precursor to the events that led to the death of Stevens in Benghazi.

"They didn't have freedom of speech under Gaddafi, either," Arebi says. "Now everyone's having their say. We have to be careful about making [the militants] a marginalised group. That just makes them stronger. I don't know how we're going to deal with this. But we have to start telling our own stories."

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