Gaddafi turns screenwriter for $40m epic about Italian invasion

The mercurial dictator of Libya has reinvented himself yet again. He has been a pariah of the West; a sponsor of terrorism; the maverick autocrat with his corps of female bodyguards; the man who comes to Brussels for a summit, erects his tent and puts his camels out to graze in the local park.

Thirty years ago with his little Green Book and his "Third Universal Theory", he proposed himself as the Mao Zedong of the Middle East, fashioning what he claimed to be a new ideology from the patriarchal customs of his clan.

But today Libya is in a different place. The worst of its diplomatic headaches are behind it – Lockerbie dealt with, the nuclear plants dismantled, the Bulgarian nurses ransomed – and the world is keen to do business. And now the ruler is trying on a new hat. Meet Muammar al-Gaddafi: screenwriter.

A series of impressionistic sketches he has written evoking his country as it was on the eve of invasion by Italy in September 1911 – placid, rustic, traditional – and then as it roused itself to fight to expel the foreigners, is to become the basis for a film costing at least $40m (£19.1m) which begins shooting in Libya next year.

Aimed principally at a non-Arab audience, and entitled Dhulm – Years of Torment, it will tell the story of Libya's traumatic experience at the hands of Europe's Johnny-come-lately imperialists.

To the other European powers, it was hard to take Italy seriously as a colonial force. Its first adventure, against the supposedly easy target of Ethiopia, ended in the worst defeat ever suffered by a European army in Africa. Libya, just across the pond from Sicily, was thinly defended by a small Turkish garrison, at a time when the Ottoman Empire was on its knees. It was expected to be a pushover.

Instead, after quick early success, Italy found itself embroiled in an insurgency that dragged on for the next 20 years. The Libyans became the first people in the world to know the terror of air bombing, among the first to be gassed from the skies, and were early guinea pigs for the concentration-camp concept. Unable to break their spirit, Italy resorted to driving them across the border into Egypt and Chad. Ramzi Rassi, the Lebanese producer of the new film, says that by the time the Italians fled home in 1943, one-third of the Libyan population had been killed and one-third forced into exile.

In his treatment for the film, Gaddafi describes the beauty of his land before the coming of the new Romans. "Tripoli ... a string of white buildings painted with the local lime ... Behind it stretches the deep blue sea, its light waves shimmering, and much clearer in the distance the wide open horizon..."

Seen from the other side of the Mediterranean it all looked so different. For Italy, unified for a bare half century, the invasion of the Ottoman province of Tripolitana e Cirenaica was a chance to prove its worth as a martial country. "The great proletarian nation has stirred!" declared Giovanni Pascoli, the Italian poet, as the invasion got under way.

Dhulm ("injustice" in Arabic), will tell the story of the invasion and the long Libyan resistance through the eyes of those who experienced it, based on real people. One of the main characters is an extraordinary journalist called Francis McCullagh from Dungannon in Co Tyrone, who really deserves a biopic all to himself. In October 1911, his zest for action unsated, he crossed the Mediterranean with the invading Italians. "He came over with the invasion force," says Mr Rassi, "and later wrote a book about the invasion almost in the form of a script. He is one of the characters in the film, as an eye-witness of what happened."

Dhulm is not Col Gaddafi's first venture into film. In 1980 his regime paid $30m to make Omar Mukhtar: Lion of the Desert, an epic about Omar the Bedouin schoolteacher who became the legendary leader of the Libyan resistance, and fought on well into his seventies until he was captured by the Italians and hanged in front of 20,000 of his Bedouin followers. Lion had an improbably glittering cast, including Anthony Quinn as Omar, Oliver Reed as the Italian commander who tries to track him down and Rod Steiger as Mussolini. But Arabs were deeply unpopular at the time of its release in 1983 thanks to Opec's price rises and other factors (including Gaddafi himself), and the film sank without trace.

Is the world readier now to hear Libya's tale of woe? Mr Rassi says it should be. "We see Armenians and Jews talking about genocide – Libya wants the truth about what happened there to be exposed, too. It's not just Gaddafi but the people as a whole: the degree of popular support for the film project is huge. And the international politics are more favourable to the idea of the film today than ever before."

Yet the first stumbling block is Italy, which shows little inclination to confront what it did across the water. Mr Rassi and the director of the film, the star Syrian TV film-maker Najdat Anzour, were in Rome this week promoting Dhulm, but with the exception of one piece by an Arab journalist, the film project has been ignored. Italian politicians are willing to talk about reparations, including a Gaddafian proposal that they build him a whopping autostrada, gratis – but just don't mention the war. When Lion of the Desert was released, it was banned in Italy on the grounds that it was "damaging to the honour of the Italian army" and has still never been shown there.

But it is time Italy made the effort – and the rest of us, too: not merely to recognise the suffering inflicted, to understand better what this country went through, and how the bitterness of a people subjected to such treatment can fester for generations without a full accounting. But also to understand and deal with the delirious joy that accompanied the rape of Libya.

Begun on the cusp of the First World War, the Libyan invasion incubated the bacillus of Fascism. And the horror of it was meat and drink to Europe's new utopians. Another journalist who crossed the Mediterranean to report on the war was Filippo Tommaso Marinetti, poet and founder of the Futurist movement. For him, the Italian forces behaved far too well: he denounced their "stupid, colonial humanitarianism". He believed more violence was required. "We want to glorify war," ran the Futurist Manifesto, "the only source of hygiene in the world – militarism, patriotism, the destructive act." For these Europeans, Libya's "liberation" was the apogee of modern civilisation.

Now of course we know different. "It was one of the ugliest forms of colonialism," says Mr Rassi, "with a scale of brutality that is unimaginable, covering the whole population. Yet very little is known about it. It is easy to understand why."

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