…In your documentaries, you have this ability to extract truth from all these personalities and personages, that’s what’s so emblematic of your work. You’re getting these people to open up—how is that? Is it just because you come from a family of diplomats? Why is it that you can get to these people? House of Saud, they don’t talk to people!
Do you think they wanted to talk to me? It took me thirteen months to get into that country, let alone talk to them. It’s called pure persistence and harassment. If you’re not obsessive enough, you can’t do this.
And why do they talk to me? It’s actually a system. It took me years of trial and error, but I honestly think I have a method: a method that factors in so many things that at the end of the day, I usually have enough. For example, my stories are very simple. It’s one narrative arc, you don’t go right and you don’t go left. Now, how you illustrate this narrative arc is through sequences and details and bits of the puzzle that construct this narrative arc. For the Saudi film, for each of the four main themes, I had fourteen different sequences. Any one that fell apart, fine, I have the other. The one I eventually use is the one that had the best archive, the best storytelling, the best illustration, to make it—because at the end of the day, what is a film? It’s about telling a story. Behind the Rainbow, it’s the story of two guys who were really chummy, and ended up falling out. Within that narrative arc of the story of these two buddies who fell out, you’re telling the history of a country, about the transformation, about the dreams, the reality, but it’s one narrative arc.
But you got those two guys, and you got them as guys! That’s what’s amazing. How did you do that?
Persist—you absolutely persist. In the methodology, you maintain a number of options for yourself, and you know exactly who can speak about this and that and how it fits in together.
Secondly is when you’re doing your research, my motto is that you know about these guys, more than they can remember about themselves. Eventually, everyone takes you for a ride. It’s human nature, and if they didn’t they’d be stupid. As they’re taking you for a ride, at some stage you say something, and you see that look in their eyes like, how’d she know that? Being a woman, talking to these people, by definition they underestimate me. Which is fantastic. The first hour of every interview is throwaway. They’re doing their thing, I’m doing my thing, it’s like a boxing match. Each one is claiming his ground. Then we establish that actually I know what I’m talking about, so we move from the interview phase into the let-me-give-you-a-lecture phase, to let’s discuss this, to let’s have this conversation. It takes time to shift this thing from question-answer to conversation.
When you’re in that perspective, the guys talking to you are actually really happy, because nobody talks to them like that. They either boss people around, or they have political conversations where everything is measured. My interviews are usually two to seven hours, and at some point, I swear, it’s body language—where you see the other person sort of goes back in their seat and doesn’t look at you anymore. And he starts reminiscing. He’s not talking to you anymore. He’s not opening up to you—you’ve just touched something. And that’s why when most people say I do investigative stuff, I don’t do investigative stuff. There is nothing new in any of my films. I do not look for scoops and I do not want scoops. The minute it’s a scoop, the other person is in a different space. I don’t want scoops. All I’m trying to do is to get to capture, encapsulate that understanding of this one specific moment, from all its different sides. When you line them up together, you get an understanding of that trajectory. That’s what makes the film work.
How about your work outside of documentary? You speak a lot about your archive . . .
The archive. Now, if there is one battle I could leave documentary filmmaking for . . . See, I think of myself as a bit of a soldier [laughs]. There are so many battles out there that need to be fought. No one’s going to do it for us. Archive is one battle. As I was saying earlier, we’ve never told our own stories. Most of the visuals of us in the past have been taken through Western eyes. Most of the archive available is either French, Belgian, British, American, you name it. There’s very, very little African or Third World archive. The little there is, is so badly stored, is so unavailable, they don’t have tapes so they rerecord on the master tapes. I think this is part of the heritage that I was talking about.
My biggest pride is that I did a film in the Congo (L’Afrique en morceaux: La tragédie des grands lacs)— practically all the footage was African footage. I mean, I spent months on all fours in these places where you open the canister and the termites fly out into your face, and with all the silicon, I fainted, and the nitrogen . . . when you save one canister and actually use that footage—nobody even knows it’s African footage, but the way it’s filmed, the way the light is, the perspective, the angle, the eye, is different. The gaze is different. And most of Cuba: An African Odyssey was Cuban footage, Angolan footage, Congolese footage. Why? It is part of, I don’t want to call it a mission, but when you decide to engage on these terms, and answer your own question about these issues, then you have to be honest enough to try, at least—you don’t always get it, but try and get it.
Another thing that brings up is a theme that has been an issue for African filmmakers, which is financing, especially on your projects—and the thing is that you’ve done these big, macro projects that deal with big mega-issues.
I have never once even submitted a request for any kind of financing that I’m entitled to as an African filmmaker. My dossier with my name on it does not exist in La Francophonie, in the French Ministry of Cooperation and Development, in the Ford Foundation, in every single fund you can think of, I have never ever gone there. Why? Because I think that part of our problem as filmmakers is that we’ve been assisted. Assistance isn’t necessarily the best way to grow. I’m your throw-the-kids-in-the-deep-end-of-the-pool kind of girl, which I physically did to both of my kids, actually. And they swam!
I’m sick and tired of being put in a slot, as though because of my family background I have access that the others don’t. I’m very sorry, why am I different? Who the hell am I? My dad is sitting on a couch in front of television, retired. He’s eighty-something. Does he have any strings to pull? No! I just work eighteen hours a day. Why does it take me five years to make a film? Because to get the financing together, to get the work done properly, to do this and to do that, I need that time, and I need that money. I’ve done how many films and this is the first time ever that I do the festival run. First time ever. I usually go to a maximum to three festivals a year. Max.
Because I need to work! If I start traveling and going everywhere I’m invited, when am I going to work? The Cuban film was invited to fifty-seven festivals. I went to two. You think I don’t want to get the glory of the fruits of my work? Of course I do! But if I sit on my bum and get the glory, I’m not going to do my next film. You do the bloody work, that’s that.
So speaking of your next film, do you have any projects coming up?
You know, it’s very difficult, and it comes back to financing. I have a number of projects I want to do, and I can’t decide, because I think we’re reaching a real crossroads with financing. I’ve always managed to juggle, and no one ever has more than 10 percent of my film, which means nobody except myself is the boss, so all the financiers think they can decide but they can’t, because they’re only 10 percent.
But yes, I have a couple of projects that I’m thinking of. One is about women in resistance. I never thought of myself as a woman filmmaker. I think of myself as a filmmaker, period. I’m often criticized that there aren’t many women in my films—and actually there aren’t [laughs]. They’re all grumpy old men! Because I don’t think that I need to stick women in just to stick them in. I think that women have their own particular roles that need to be talked about as such. So if I do something about women, it’s about women.
The other story I want to do is something on Frantz Fanon.
Do you ever consider doing films along the lines of Sembene’s Ceddo, in terms of African history, the entrée of Islam, and what that means? Africa, Islam, Arab . . . are there stories there, in your mind?
This whole stigma of being an Arab Muslim, it’s like walking around like green men, walking around like an alien. I’m not a very practicing Muslim. I’m definitely a Muslim, but I actually believe that all religions are the same, and that the foundation of why religion came and what we should do, and one God and the rest of it, it’s all the same, and the rest is all about power. But since the Gulf War, this stigma of being a Muslim and an Arab has allowed Westerners, especially when they know you’re Egyptian, to ask you, are you Muslim or are you a Copt? I sort of look at people, and it’s just like, can you actually go up to a Jew and ask him, “Are you Jewish?” You can’t do that. How do you ask such private questions? What allows you to come up to me and ask me such a private question?
So, all that is just to say that this stigma of suddenly being classified, in a funny way, got me very much on the defensive, and got me in a whole logic of defending the Islamic side of things, which I do defend, as a woman. So this whole misunderstanding, or desire to paint things in a misunderstood way, is something that I take a lot of interest in and offense to. But on the other hand, I think that there’s a reason for it, and it comes from this fear of the other. I mean, I think we went from the red scare straight into the green scare. And if it wasn’t the green scare, God knows, the next is probably the yellow scare. So I think it’s partly human nature.
But let me tell you a secret. What I’m actually doing now: music is the real passion of my heart. I’m actually doing a DJing professional certificate. I want to be a DJ. But I don’t want to be a DJ for other people, I want to be a DJ for myself.
Well, everything you do is for yourself, and then it ends up being other people’s pleasure. Any last-minute gems?
I don’t think I have gems. I guess it’s just that one of my frustrations is that it’s very easy for people who don’t actually watch what you’re trying to do to lump you into criteria. I do think that’s one of my frustrations, because it’s very easy for people, at least for my colleagues, to look at my work as journalistic documentary. But I keep trying to tell them, I was a journalist, and I know for a fact that I’m doing everything the exact opposite of what I was doing. I guess these pigeonholes that the outside world tries to pigeonhole us into—“African cinema,” rather than “cinema”—we tend to do it to each other, too. I just don’t want to be part of a ghetto, and I don’t think that we should be a ghetto. We turn ourselves into a ghetto out of insecurity. I honestly think that it’s time to break these chains, and that’s part of the reason why I will not go get the funding from where I know it’s available—because fighting and struggling to get part of the money from the Association Relative à la Télévision Européene or whomever else, and to compete with everyone else for that same money, puts you in the mainstream, and reinforces the ghetto. We’re hurt by the ghetto. And I don’t want just the ghetto to hear, I want everyone to hear. Why shouldn’t everyone hear?
About the director
Jihan El-Tahri is an Egyptian writer, director, and producer. After receiving a degree in political science from the American University in Cairo, she worked as a news correspondent for British and American newspapers, covering the Middle East and Africa. In 1990, El-Tahri began directing and producing documentaries for French television and international broadcasters. She has produced and directed numerous documentaries, including the award-winning film Behind the Rainbow. She also produced and directed the acclaimed documentary Cuba, an African Odyssey, and the Emmy-nominated House of Saud.
About the interviewer
Alonzo Rico Speight is an independent producer and director of film, television, and theater. His credits include documentaries, narratives, and television and web productions. His documentary Who’s Gonna Take the Weight? (1997) screened at the 52nd Cannes International Film Festival. Speight is now in production on a documentary about writer and psychiatrist Frantz Omar Fanon.