Legendary documentarian Jihan El-Tahri started her career as a journalist, working as a news agency correspondent and TV researcher covering Middle East politics before starting to direct and produce documentaries for French TV, the BBC, PBS and other international broadcasters. She has since directed more than a dozen films including the Emmy nominated The House of Saud, The Price of Aid, which won the European Media prize in 2004 and Cuba: An African Odyssey. Her most recent feature documentary Behind the Rainbow, which examines the transitional process in South Africa, has won various prizes since its release in 2009. She is currently finalizing a three-hour documentary provisionally titled Egypt’s Modern Pharaohs. As if this wasn’t enough, El-Tahri has also written two books, The 9 Lives of Yasser Arafat and Israel and the Arabs: the 50 Years War and is engaged in various associations and institutions working with African cinema.
What is your first film memory?
I actually remember watching Shadi Abdel Salam’s The Mummy at a hotel screening in London when my family moved there. I was around 5 and I knew I was Egyptian and the mummy terrified me but got me very curious. I remember the lighting of the film until today. It made these ancient stories so real and timeless.
Why did you decide to become a filmmaker?
I started off as a journalist because I truly believed that journalism is the first draft of history and if done properly it could actually change the world. Young and idealistic I thought I could change the world single handedly … Alas, the Gulf war of 1990 was a rough wakeup call. It is then that I realized that I needed to reassess many things, including my own identity and what stories were important for me to engage in. I finally realized that I could only tell one story at a time if I wanted to do it properly. Documentary was the obvious choice. I made numerous “observational” films but that still was not satisfying. Then one day I was hired to work with a company in the UK and they gave me their last film series to watch: Death of Yugoslavia. A 7-hour series that I stayed up all night watching. There and then I decided that that was the kind of documentary filmmaking I wanted to pursue.
Which film do you wish you had made and why?
In 1992 I wrote an extensive treatment for a film based on a topic I had been researching for a full year. The film was titled Allah’s Holy Warriors. It was about the brand new phenomenon of Islamic warriors returning from Afghanistan under the leadership of a then unknown commander called Osama Bin Laden. They had offices at Finsbry Park in London and I had spent weeks convincing them to allow me to film. They finally gave me the OK, I did go film a short sequence while they where in Sudan. They were due to leave and return to Afghanistan and I obtained the OK to actually film the move and spend time filming in their camps. I tried selling this idea to any TV channel but nobody was interested in an unknown Islamic fighter and his ragtag troops.
Without the backing of a channel it felt too complicated and decided to wait and do this story later …. Mistake!!
Why I think I should have done this film? It’s is not because of the high profile the story would have had later, My regret is mainly because it was a time when this totally inaccessible and incomprehensible group were willing to talk and explain their grievances, who they are and why their fervent beliefs are unshakable. I always feel that maybe if I had done that story, it would have allowed me – let alone others – to understand that whole Islamic “terrorism” phenomenon that has altered the face of my continent and the world actually.
Alex Gibney’s documentary Taxi to the Dark Side. I am in total awe of how he managed to – coherently and uninterruptedly – turn the murder investigation of a simple unknown taxi driver in Afghanistan into a worldwide interrogation of a political system. The film is thorough, informative and scary. It is perfect proof that a film can uncover and contest a superpower efficiently and dramatically.
Name one of the films on your top-5 list and the reason why it is there.
The film tackles multiple sensitive and personally touching issues with a force and a sensitivity that I find mind blowing. It is about being of mixed race, the case of my children and many of my friends. This space of not knowing where you belong… It is about negotiating this space as an outsider. Being a bit of a nomad I so understood and identified with the main characters’ clumsy attempts to fit in and his rage when realizing that he never will. Tackling this film through music and youth urban culture made the film universal, informative as well as extremely sensitive and compassionate.
Ask yourself any question you think I should have asked and answer it.
I guess I will add the question that I always ask myself: Is it worth it? Meaning is making a film with all the pain, the heartache and the minimal returns it entails worth it?
When I am frustrated about spending 3 to 4 years of my life chiselling away at what seems to be a mountain, my answer is usually: No! But once the film survives the first year and continues to make sense, I believe that there is nothing more precious than telling a story that can talk to others and allows your voice as a person to exist. Now old and much less idealistic, I still believe that this single drop in the ocean does make a difference, if only in a single other person’s life.
Image Credit: Antoine Tempé