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09.28.10

Qaddafi Goes to Hollywood

Libya’s business ties are coming under scrutiny today during a new hearing over the release of the Lockerbie bomber. But it seems the Qaddafis have even grander aspirations, making films starring Adrien Brody, Forest Whitaker, and Mickey Rourke.

Matty Beckerman is an unlikely ally for the Qaddafi family.

Beckerman, who is 33 and Jewish, grew up in Red Bank, New Jersey and tried his luck in the music business before he met Saadi Qaddafi—on a beach in Mauritius a few years ago.

He asked me if I’m Jewish. I said ‘yes.’ He said ‘perfect.’” Beckerman remembers, recounting Qaddafi’s response: “’The fact that we will work together will change perceptions.’”

Today, Beckerman is the public face of the Qaddafi family’s attempt to buy into the American dream—or at least to fund a part of the dream factory. Beckerman heads Natural Selection, LLC, a film production company based in L.A. in which Qaddafi—the son of Libya’s leader Muammar Qaddafi—is the main investor.

Libya’s business ties will be under scrutiny in Washington today when the Senate Foreign Relations Committee holds a hearing on the circumstances around the release of Abdelbaset al-Megrahi, the Libyan convicted in the so-called Lockerbie bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 in 1988 that killed 270 people. So far, Senators have been frustrated by the refusal of BP executives as well as former and current British and Scottish officials to participate. At issue is whether Megrahi’s release was somehow connected to an oil deal between BP and the Libyan government. Both the company and British officials have denied such a connection.

And in the same way that the U.S. has been drawn to Libya for its most wanted export, Libya now wants a piece of America’s most undeniable commodity: Hollywood movies.

The investigation into Megrahi’s release has rekindled animosity toward the Qaddafis and Libya, and strained relations between Whitehall and Washington. What it doesn’t appear to have done, however, is put a damper on business with Libya.

Since Megrahi’s return to Tripoli a year ago, “the doors have been flung open” for business, said one international lawyer, during a swank party celebrating the anniversary of the Libyan Revolution at the Dorchester hotel in London earlier this month. In the last six years, Libyan exports to the U.S. have grown six-fold, reaching nearly $2 billion in 2009, and Libya now imports over $700 million worth of goods and services from the United States, up from about $40 million in 2004, according to the International Monetary Fund. For the UK, meanwhile, exports have tripled, reaching $1.1 billion in 2009. Both countries now trade more with Libya than with Egypt, a long-time ally.

After decades of sanctions and diplomatic tension, the relationship between Libya and the U.S. started to thaw in 2003, after the Libyan leader publicly said the country would give up its pursuit of weapons of mass destruction. Earlier that year, the United Nations had lifted the trade sanctions that had been in place, and the U.S. followed suit by beginning to ease its sanctions in 2004, completing the process two years later.

Libya essentially took responsibility for the Lockerbie bombing in 2008, when it set up a compensation fund for U.S. victims. That same year the U.S. appointed its first ambassador to the country in nearly 40 years.

Said to have the largest oil reserves in Africa, Libya has, perhaps not surprisingly, attracted the interest of oil companies such as BP, Shell, and ExxonMobil.

And in the same way that the U.S. has been drawn to Libya for its most wanted export, Libya now wants a piece of America’s most undeniable commodity: Hollywood movies.

So far, Qaddafi has backed three projects, among them Isolation, a thriller about a medical student who wakes up in a hospital isolation room to find out she’s been exposed to an unknown disease. And while neither Saadi, or his infamous father or brother, ever visited the set, the family was still a presence—an empty director’s chair bore their name.

“There were a lot of pictures taken with that chair,” said Danny Sherman, a producer on the film, who first met Beckerman when Sherman was looking for funding for Isolation.

He had no hesitation, he said, when he heard the money would be coming from Libya.

“Some people thought it was funny, and some were like…ooooohhh…but no one walked out.”

Others, however, have been more hesitant about getting into business with the Qaddafis.

“Can one ethically do business with them? That’s the first consideration,” said Peter Gethers, president of Random House Films, who was approached by Beckerman last month. And despite Beckerman’s convincing—and very appealing—pitch, Gethers ultimately decided against working with Natural Selection. “We’re not doing it for ethical, moral, and political reasons,” he said.

Brian Flynn, whose brother died in the Lockerbie bombing, was appalled by the Qaddafi foray into Hollywood.

“It’s a pretty pathetic attempt of a dictator’s son to be a Hollywood player,” said Flynn, who has written about losing his brother in the bombing. Flynn saw no difference between taking money from Saadi and Muammar. “Whose money is it? It’s daddy’s.”

For Beckerman, the road to Tripoli was winding. Having grown up in a hippie family, Beckerman was open to a Middle East adventure and so, in 2008 when he couldn’t get funding for his production company in the U.S., he traveled to Dubai and Beirut, eventually meeting an agent, who put him in touch with Qaddafi.

For three months, the two traveled around the Middle East and Africa, beginning what Beckerman describes as a sound business partnership, even a friendship. He acknowledges that Qaddafi’s name raises eyebrows in certain quarters but believes that it’s just a matter of time before the world will stop associating Libya with terrorism and start thinking of other things—like development and money.

“At times it’s been challenging,” he said, “Sometimes the initial reaction from people is freaked out. I always tell people right from the beginning so they can deal with the implications.” But he adds: “Perception changes constantly. Five years from now, Libya is going to be the new Dubai.”

In addition to Isolation, currently in post-production, the Qaddafi-backed company has helped finance The Experiment, starring Adrien Brody and Forrest Whitaker. And at the Toronto Film Festival, Beckerman just announced the next project titled Ice Man and starring Mickey Rourke. It is the true story of an assassin.

As Sherman, the producer, noted: “We don’t turn down money in Hollywood.”

Roja Heydarpour is an editor at The Daily Beast. She has reported for the The New York Times and The Times-Tribune.