Libyan exile’s life captured vividly on film

The recently released documentary The Colonel’s Stray Dogs provides a political and personal perspective of Libya under the rule of the late Muammar Gaddafi.

In his first feature-length documentary released in 2011, The Imam and I, Cape Town-based filmmaker Khalid Shamis, 46, told the story of his maternal grandfather Imam Abdullah Haron. A prominent anti-apartheid activist and cleric, the imam was murdered by the South African Police’s notorious Security Branch while in detention. 

The filmmaker’s next venture is a similar ode to a family political drama, but this time it is about his father, the political activist and journalist Ashur Shamis, 72. Its title, The Colonel’s Stray Dogs, is taken from a statement by Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi in 1980 giving orders to eliminate all the country’s “stray dogs” – exiles living abroad – and telling them to either return or face “physical liquidation”.

Shamis’ father was one of these so-called stray dogs, and the documentary provides a deeply personal window into the tragedy of Libya by interrogating his life-long sacrifice against the backdrop of his life, and that of his family, in exile. It is being screened at the Durban International Film Festival until 1 August.

19 April 2021: Director Khalid Shamis spent 10 years making his film about his father, piecing together parts of his story through archival materials. (Photograph by Tiago Correia-Paulo)

While deeply political, the story is also profoundly personal. Shamis’ central question is about his father’s commitment to his family versus his dedication to the struggle for freedom, and the cost of that. “My dad opposed Gaddafi for most of his life,” Shamis says in the film’s opening lines. “For the 40 years he was in exile in England, it felt like killing Gaddafi was more important to him than living with us.” 

Through a decade of research, laboriously digging through archives and doing interviews, he stitches together a remarkable story. His part in it starts in London in the United Kingdom, where he was born to his Libyan father and South African mother Shamela, who had left her home country when she was 18, escaping the apartheid regime who would kill her father a year later. The couple met, married and started a family. 

Shamis says his youth was relatively normal considering the extraordinary circumstances of his parents’ background. About Libya, he says, he was “always curious and a bit intrepid”. In London the family always discussed Cape Town, he explains, whereas “Libya was always this unknowable place. It was very closed, and it was all about the cult of Gaddafi.”  

Shamis left London for South Africa in 2005 to make The Imam and I. He ended up staying, raising his own family. 

Tracing history

Gaddafi rose to power in the late 1960s through a military coup in Libya and ruled for 40 years until his death. Ashur had become politicised during the 1960s while still living in Libya, but left for London in 1965 to pursue his studies as an aeronautical engineer. Owing to his criticism of the government, Ashur’s name was added to a target list in the early 1970s and he was unable to return to home. 

Many Libyan political dissidents were forced abroad at the time. Ashur hid his political life from his family in order to protect them. At one point, he was declared an enemy of the Libyan state with a $1 million bounty on his head. Meanwhile, he predominantly worked to promote the resistance movement abroad and became central as a media liaison and, later, a journalist working for the BBC World Service. 

While in exile, Ashur joined members of the London-based National Front for the Salvation of Libya (NFSL), which was formed in 1981 with the core focus of creating a democratic Islamic society. Its members conducted a series of military actions in the 1980s against Gaddafi, including a failed coup attempt. Though the NFSL was the core opposition to Gaddafi’s regime, it is known to have had ties to America’s Central Intelligence Agency in maintaining its covert operations abroad.

Circa 1984: Ashur Shamis as he appeared on BBC News at Ten. For many years, he was shown on television in silhouette as he was targeted by Muammar Gaddafi’s regime. (Images courtesy of Khalid Shamis)

Some of Shamis’ earliest memories of his father are seeing his silhouetted figure appearing on the evening television news. Ashur became a political commentator on news from Libya but his face was always hidden. He had several near-fatal experiences as he covertly tried to spur on the revolution. 

Shamis says he did not know much about his father’s activities. “I knew my dad was in opposition to Gaddafi. I knew that he was on [an] Interpol [list] – at one point there was a bounty on his head. I knew growing up that he had all these passports, I’d seen them. But the details I didn’t know… What opened this up for me was realising he had all of these documents under his desk, in suitcases.” 

The full extent of Ashur’s involvement in the NFSL only unfolded for Shamis through making the film. It is summed up humorously when he says to his father: “While we were in the other room watching Rambo, you were in this room planning Rambo.”

A stranger in his country

Gaddafi’s fall from grace was a messy one. It was not only Libyan rebels and youths who joined forces to end his regime. A North Atlantic Treaty Organization intervention that was widely criticised lasted seven months and raised a death toll of about 8 000 people. 

When Gaddafi’s rule came to a bloody end in 2011, Shamis mainly wanted to document his father’s return home after 40 years. “When the revolution started, I thought if there’s a chance my dad’s going to go back, I want to make a film about it. I knew the main points of the history. I wanted to know more about what he did and to see what happens when he goes back.”  

But he came to realise that he would have to explore both the relationship between Ashur and the dictator and that between father and son, and so he would have to feature in it too. “And from that point I thought okay, it has to really be me in it. I have to not just tell his story but tell my story of his story.”  

Undated: Father and son Ashur and Khalid Shamis together in a still from The Colonel’s Stray Dogs. They spent many years sifting through suitcases full of documents that carry nearly 40 years of Libyan political history.

Ashur left for Libya as an adviser to the government once Gaddafi was chased out of Tripoli only to find it a vastly different place to the one he had left. Shamis and the rest of the family visited a few months later. “By the time we arrived in Libya, Gaddafi was dead and it was a new place,” he says of the country he had heard about his entire life but visited only once. 

The revolution once imagined did not happen and the freedom dreams held for Libya were not actualised. The country was deeply fractured, many returning exiles were marginalised and the government continued to remain unstable – a situation that remains to this day and is often referred to as the “Libyan crisis”. Ashur, despondent and unable to find himself a place among the new ideals of Libya, chose to return to London, where he continues to live.

Building blocks 

The Colonel’s Stray Dogs has an excellent score by Shamis’ close friend, the film producer and composer Tiago Correia-Paulo. But much of its brilliance lies in the selection of powerful archival material – an impressive array of cassettes, VHS tapes, secret documents, passports, letters, books, photos and combat footage from Libya – all of which had been preserved by Ashur. 

“Anything to do with Libya, he recorded it,” says Shamis. “Or anything to do with what’s been happening in the Middle East, such as the Iranian Revolution. He’s got old tape recorders and newspapers… He would send us out to get all the newspapers. He would cut them up.”

Circa 1984: Ashur Shamis, his wife Shamela and their sons during a family dinner at a restaurant in London.

Shamis would often be the one to press “record” on the tapes. “Whenever anything happened with Libya, my dad was the go-to guy,” he says. “He would go for the interview and he’d call us on those phones with the curly wire and say, ‘Khalid, at 10 o’clock tonight, press record on the VHS machine. Find the tape, put it in and just record.” 

The first thing Shamis did when starting work on the film was to gather all the material and digitise what would become his main source for constructing the story. “The archives is a big thing,” he says, and it was an arduous and expensive process to obtain the rights for using some of the material.

A personal take

Gaddafi was a complex and divisive figure – some thought of him as a dictator and renegade madman, whereas others saw him as a pan-Africanist and anti-imperialist who supported the liberation movements of many African countries. But as Shamis says: “He wasn’t that to us. He tried to kill us.” 

He adds: “On the one hand, he was the new handsome face of the socialist Left, but he became this dictator to his own people. He talked about wanting to unite Africa, but he wanted to rule Africa as well.”

Two months after Gaddafi’s announcement about capturing “stray dogs”, Libyan agents shot dead BBC journalist Mohammed Mustafa Ramadan, a friend of Ashur’s, outside the Regent’s Park mosque in London. “There are Libyan families we grew up with whose dads were assassinated,” says Shamis, “and they suffered. But we survived and we kept together. And my dad’s alive. I think I should have talked about them more somehow [in the film], but it’s also not my story to tell.”

Circa 1982: Old photographs of Ashur Shamis that were taken at the height of the National Front for the Salvation of Libya’s operations in London.

Having two activist paternal figures has influenced Shamis to use his filmmaking as a medium for deeply personal takes on political art. Both his documentaries have revealed important moments in history that were previously undocumented, especially from the unique perspective of exile. 

To his credit as a filmmaker, Shamis is able to convey the story from within, without missing a beat. He has captured the family’s life in London, sometimes approaching the interviews more as an investigative journalist than a son, unafraid to ask both his parents difficult questions. Particularly interesting is the interview with Shamela, an incredibly strong woman and, as the daughter of Imam Haron and Ashur’s wife, the holder of many secrets. 

Initially, there is a distance between father and son as the interviews take place, but their relationship changes as the film progresses. “That’s what I got out of it,” says Shamis. “I think, knowing what he gave up and sacrificed and what he was going towards, I never really questioned before what that was.” 

Shamis says as the making of The Colonel’s Stray Dogs progressed, his father would often refer to it as “our film” and ask fondly: “How’s our film coming along?” He regrets not being able to watch its premiere at the Hot Docs Canadian International Documentary Festival in April with Ashur, owing to Covid-19 travel restrictions. “My big dream was to be in the cinema and watch it with him, but it didn’t happen.” When his father did get to see the film, “he didn’t expect this personal story, but it got his stamp of approval”.

Undated: A still image from The Colonel’s Stray Dogs showing fragments of a double life. Ashur Shamis carried multiple passports and had different code names in order to remain underground and protect his family.

Wrapping the film in March after so many years of working on it was a “great feeling”, says Shamis. “I was ready to let it go. It’s a big weight off your shoulders, because over these years it’s always there.” 

Shamis’ unconventional approach to telling his father’s story paints a fragile journey in heroic mode. Ultimately, it is a tragic story about the dream for freedom and its personal costs – one to which many exiles around the world can relate. 

*The Colonel’s Stray Dogs is being screened at the Durban International Film Festival until 1 August.

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