Beginning on December 18, 2010, a series of revolutions and uprisings began to occur across many Arab nations, primarily in the Middle East and across northern Africa. While a discussion and analysis of the cause of these historic uprisings are more complicated than a mere paragraph can describe, some of the reasons included people chafing at dictatorial or monarchial governments, economic slumps that included high rates of joblessness, and the denial of basic freedoms to entire populations. Many people watched in rapt attention as the first government to fall was Tunisia’s, rapidly followed by Egypt, Yemen, and finally Libya.
We Win or We Die is a 20-minute, documentary-style narrative about a little-known, at least in the U.S., hero of the Libyan people, a man who was so tired of the fighting, so tired of the innocent civilians and protestors being killed or kidnapped from the streets of Muammar Gaddafi’s Benghazi, that he took his fate–and the fate of the entire country–into his own hands and changed Libya’s history forever. The title of the film comes from a quote attributed to Omar Mukhtar, perhaps Libya’s most famous revolutionary, who fought against the Italians during the 1930’s. It is also the title of an English-language song that, during the Libyan "Arab Spring" became a sort of anthem for Libyan resistance fighters and protestors. We Win or We Die is a brief account of Libya’s struggle for freedom from the Gaddafi regime during a six-month period of time in early and mid-2011, but it is also the story of Abdo-Mahdi Zew, an ordinary Libyan citizen, mild-mannered and soft-spoken, father of two young women, who understood exactly what it would take to end Gaddafi’s four-decade reign of terror.
The city of Benghazi has a rich and ancient history that spans millennia. Libya’s second largest city, in recent times it had become known more for Gaddafi’s bloody dictatorship than for anything else. Perhaps its most famous landmark was a heavily armed government compound called The Katiba. Spanning nearly two square miles, the fortress was a place to fear, a place where political prisoners came when they were arrested, where few ever escaped its confines, and where a single turret in the center of the compound looked out over the city, machine gun slats surrounding the uppermost section like a terrible circle of dark eyes on some alien creature. Several times protestors had attacked this immense fortress only to be gunned down by the overwhelming weaponry of Gaddafi’s military.
Director Matthew Millan has created a unique documentary to honor all the citizens of Benghazi–indeed, all of Libya as a whole–as well as this quiet man who with one single action simultaneously exhibited his love for his family as well as for his country and helped to end Gaddafi’s reign of terror and violence. The film tells the real-life story of Zew as he initiates his one-man plan to take out The Katiba and intersperses this computer-generated re-creation with interviews of Zew’s family and friends along with occasional newsreel footage of the actual battle. Especially harrowing are videotaped scenes of protestors scattering in terror as soldiers in The Katiba spray the crowded streets with machine gun fire. Hearing the dozens of pops as the machine guns loose their deadly spray drives home the randomness the soldiers shot with as well as the violence these people faced daily. Another heart-wrenching scene shows Zew’s two daughters sitting with a picture of the man between them and crying as they describe this loving man and what he did for them and for his country.
20 minutes is not much time, but Millan does a superb job in summarizing the six-month siege in Benghazi and the breaching of The Katiba’s walls. The actual newsreel footage is powerful as are the survivor’s individual testimonies. The animated footage of Zew’s last few hours as he methodically hatches his plan–which turns to actual footage at the moment the plan comes to fruition–is both powerful and touching. Most Americans, including this reviewer, get their news from the radio and television. While images can be powerful, it is easy to become bored by the monotonous footage replayed over and over by the news agencies. We are out of touch with other people, other countries, other cultures; seldom are we touched by what we see happening half-a-world away, and when we are, we forget too quickly and easily. We Win or We Die is a poignant reminder that people across the world deserve and desire the same freedoms we take for granted. Just as our forefathers fought a revolution to free us from the bonds of the English monarchy, many people across the Arab world have also fought for the same reasons–and go on fighting. In Libya and a few other countries, the fighting is done for now, but for many, the fight will continue.
We Win or We Die is an invaluable snapshot into an important historical event that has the potential to impact the entire world. It is also a loving tribute to one man who through is courage gained the power to affect the outcome of an entire nation. It also serves as a powerful reminder that many people across the globe are still fighting with the ultimate outcome at stake: win, or die.