While high tech communication tools have been leveraged by the public during the last two decades, an unfortunately steady decline in the general education of the public has been observed in Western countries. The abundance of means for communication have led us to live in a constant cacophony of information.
By appearing as quickly as it disappears on our cell phones, the news comes and goes at such a rapid pace that it prevents us from taking the necessary distance.
The consequence is that the news now pushes us to react instead of to take the time for reflexion. Bassidiki Coulibaly in his excellent book « du crime d’être noir » (“The Crime of Being Black”) mentioned that the excess of light has the same effect as its absence. This enlightened examination (no pun intended) shows that the laboratory of ignorance is not uniform. Is an American better informed than a Gabonese? Nothing is less certain even if Gabon is considered to be a country under a dictatorship and the US is considered the biggest democracy in the world.
To understand matters, we need some time and the willingness to take a step back. Jihan El Tahri has combined this time and willingness and these are her strengths, as is evidenced by the different documentaries that she has directed during the last 20 years. First by walking away from her profession as a journalist, then by taking the time to study the root causes of the different topics she explore. From the tragedy of the great lakes region in her documentary <<L’Afrique en morceaux>>, to the Saudi Arabian monarchy in her documntary “House of Saoud”, and in her most recent documentary “Egypt’s Modern Pharaohs”, Ms. El Tahri has never stopped decrypting or trying to decrypt the many unexamined statements on various subjects that are too often presented as statement of facts. At the conclusion of Ms. El Tahri’s screening of “Egypt’s Modern Pharaohs” at the outstanding Maysles Cinema, I had the chance to have an open discussion with her. This discussion confirmed that simplicity, kindness and talent are not exclusive qualities. Thanks again Ms. El Tahri for your time.
Before specializing in the documentary gendre, you were a journalist working for different newspapers and TV channels, what pushed you to change direction?
I thought that by becoming a journalist, I would be ready to understand the world, but in reality not at all. The moment where I realized that was during the first Gulf War. I was in a hotel in Jordan and I integrated the fact that the short period of time that you have to write papers prevent you from getting the bigger picture.
In the case of the first Gulf War, I did not see the war coming. When the war started, the information that we used to receive came from the American army most of the time, so from one of the belligerents– it did not make sense. Moreover, I had the impression that all the things that I could say on that particular topic was only a parentheses. The only form of media that really started to have power was that of the image. I wanted to step out of the gears that were preventing us from understanding our own story by giving the power to the belligerent to tell the story. After the war I had a real identity crisis.
This moment was exactly the moment when I claimed my African identity as primary identity. From there I derived other identities, for example the fact to be Egyptian which is part of this African identity. This is not exclusive, same thing for the fact to identify as Arab. When you define the angle that you use to see life everything changes.
From there, I started to do a lot of on air reporting for a program called 24h (Twenty four hours) on the channel Canal Plus. It required me to produce a 52 minutes program on a weekly basis, it really helped me to find my way. For me, to do a documentary was not a goal. The program 24h helped me to realize that I could do a documentary but the problem was not really that. The problem was which kind of documentary.
You worked in different western press agencies, did you have the impression that your co-workers really tried hard to be objective in their work ?
I don’t like the word objective, for me this word does not mean anything. Do you have the impression that I am objective in my work?
For me this word makes sense, it is a kind of objective assigned to every journalist. A lot of times, when I watch TV or read the newspapers, I ask myself how so many of them can be so far from what the truth is on major questions.
I don’t like the word objective because at every corner you have to make decisions. When you make a decision, it is always subjective. I worked on radio, television, and in a press agency.
Typically, an event takes place somewhere. You go and arrive in a place when you have a general idea of what happened but you have to write something. Most of the time, you trust the people in your network hoping that they will tell you the truth.
To answer to your question, unfortunately, a certain number of times, the western journalists, although not all of them, see things through a prism. For example, when they come to South Africa, they come with two ideas in their head, first this dangerous and second all the white people want to leave.
This prism will take the shape of who they want to interview and how they will interpret things. I remember an anecdote that led to an argument with a journalist coming to South Africa for the first time. He exposed me the different topics that he wanted to approach and of course he wanted to talk about the so-called “white runaway.” They want to focus on “catchy” topics, topics having a real echo in their country of origin. Was he dishonest? No. To summarize, there is a lot of laziness in their behavior.
Do you have the impression that they are formatted ?
They don’t know. For example, when I was doing the documentary the “Price of Aid,” I thought that it would be an easy documentary. I was tired of doing movies that were taking four or five years. I wanted to do a movie where I would follow a bag of food aid from where the corn is planted to where it is distributed. Everything was fine until we were in Zambia filming and I saw some red on the monitor screen.
It appeared that this red was a tomato field. This led me to ask myself the justification of the food aid received by the tons in this country. I wanted to understand the consequences for example of all this corn being distributed in the country. Some of my western colleagues thought that my questions were not justified.
For me the problem was that the country was essentially killed. My documentary became an economic film, something that I absolutely had not wanted to do. To accept a harmonious point of view is the problem. I don’t think that many journalists realize the fact they are a link in a chain and how lazy they are especially when they talk about Africa.
From your point of view, there is something very arrogant when they talk about Africa for a lot of them?
Totally, there is a neuron existing for them which is on only when they talk about Africa. They do not behave the same way for Asia or Latin America. I have a theory about that. They know how much they owe to Africa and the fact to end with this mechanism would make them weaker. There is a total negative blindness for Africa and the exact contrary is true for Israel.
How do you prepare your documentaries?
I start from scratch. My first mission is to define what is my question. It looks basic but I can spend one or two months to write questions and answer questions. At some point I observe that several questions seem to be around the same thing but the central question is still missing. For example, during the preparation of my documentary about Saudi Arabia, “The House of Saoud,” one of the questions that I was not able to answer about 9/11 was how these young people decided to do what they did in the middle of New York. I could not understand how these young, handsome, rich men who lived in the Western world reached this point.
When this attack took place, everybody started to call me because in the past I wrote books about the Israeli/Palestinian conflict. Because first, people thought that it was Palestinians who perpetrated the attack. When it was confirmed that it was in reality the Islamist movements, people asked me to do a documentary about 9/11. No one was asking why it happened, and why it happened was for me, the only valid question. My other question was why were 15 out of those 19 persons from Saudi Arabia.
How do you pick your topics?
In general it is linked to question that I cannot wrap my hand around. It takes time to understand what really bothers me. In my documentary talking about the Great Lakes Region for example, the question was for me to understand the genocide in Rwanda. I started to make my investigation when suddenly the situation changed and it was at that moment that the war moved to Congo.
When you start the creation process of your documentaries, do you start it with a solid opinion? And does it happen that your opinions change between the beginning and the end of the project?
I have an opinion for sure but it is not definitive, that’s why I need to investigate. But I have to add that I never have conclusions in my films. With my film I just pretend to be a link in a chain. Other people have to come and build on what has been done or take another angle. A dialogue should take place.
I hope that my work is useful in this regard. To come back to your question, for example in the Rwanda case, I read Colette Braeckman and at the same time I read Mahmood Mamdani so two totally different perspectives. I read interviews, declassified documents and even one small discovery can change the entire direction of your work.
It happened with my documentaries about Cuba and Egypt. By way of example, for the Egyptian documentary, I learned out about the existence of a first president that I had never heard about. And because there are very few documents talking about him, I had to research some of the old newspapers released during the period of time when he was in charge. For the Cuba documentary, it was because there was another side of the story that had never been told in the Western world.
When I reach the Second stage, when I finally know what will be my central question, I read works by PHDs because the PHD authors have to provide the references that they use. After that, I do a first trip where I interview a lot of people without recording it, but just so that we can discuss the topic.
Your documentaries have the particularity to be very dense, I like this fact but do you have receive criticism for that?
Yes, people regularly tell me that but in general my answer is to invite the people to watch them several times if necessary (laughs). I do not spend 5 years working on a documentary to have it watched one time (laughs)!
In your documentaries, you are able to have the “good guy” and the “bad guy.” As a human being, how do you feel for example when you are in front of Robert Bourgi?
When I am in front of M.X I see this person as a simple human being. I think that is part of the reasons why I am able to make them speak. If I go to see Bourgi, it is to have some explanations. For sure he will tell me what he wants to say but no matter what, I will ask him my questions. Once the interview is over, I do not take for granted what he said, I double check. I have sat in front of some very bad guys, genocidal people. For example, I have interviewed Kabarebe, Magnus Malan the former Minister of Defense during Apartheid. But if I want to understand the problem that I treat, I have to talk to everybody. If you start excluding people because of what they did, you will never get anywhere.
How was the reception of your last documentary “Egypt’s Pharaohs” in France, the country where you live?
I received very good feedback from the press. The first three pages in Télérama, laudatory articles in “Liberation” and “Le Monde.” The documentary aired on the cultural channel Arte and nothing else happened. The contradiction is that I go all over the world to present the documentary.
Do you have an explanation?
The first aspect is the fact that there are no big festivals for documentaries in France. The second aspect is that in France, they seem to consider me as part of the African cinema whereas in other places, it is not like that. Distribution is the weak link of African cinema in general, it is a specific problem only impacting documentaries. There are two or three fiction directors who are able to make it but for the rest, you have a premiere here and there and that’s it.
To come back to your documentary about Egypt, one of the things that really surprised me was the image of Nasser that you gave. I grew up with a very positive image of Nasser as young person of African origin. Your analysis shed a light that attacked his legacy somewhat.
I also grew up with this image of Nasser and I maintain it. I thought that I knew a lot of things. Nasser was an icon, it was Panafricanism, he was a visionary, he still is all of that for me but I realized also that if we are where we are now he has an important part of the responsibility. He did not have the intention but he played an active part. I have to add that I do not easily touch the African idols because we need our heroes.
For you who has been the worst president?
Each one did his part, Nasser created the infrastructure and the corrosion, the second Sadat introduced the poison and Moubarak kneeled down the country.
For me there are two questions coming back directly or indirectly to your work, the question of identity and cupidity.
If by cupidity you mean greed but not exclusively the money. There are always questions of power, interests and nationalism.
Nationalism, I insert that in identity, for interests I insert that in cupidity.
Power would be in that case the link between both. Your analysis is correct. When I introduced this last project to my mentor, his comment was to say “again the same movie.” He was right, I think that the common denominator between my movies is to understand how did we end up here. We are a continent which 50 years ago had the courage to break something colossal by breaking the colonialism. We had a real vision of why we needed independence. The center node for me is what is going on. The price of aid is a good example of these questions. The movie about Saudi Arabia is a good example of the links between cupidity, identity and nationalism. Without the Americans the “Saoud” would not be here more than 15 minutes. But the scary thing is that the “Saoud” are less dogmatic that their population.
In your documentaries, Africa regularly comes back, foreign interference is part of the problems but beyond that, what is for you the node of the problem?
When you say interference yes and no. We are adults, our leaders have their part of responsibility. The change will not be conditioned by the gun but the civil society. But the problem is that each one grows up with having money as their main goal. I really believe that the future is for Africa, we have all the key ingredients but we do not know how to use them for the moment. There are cycles, Europe was in a hole 400 years ago.
The golden age of the Arabic world is not so far from now. The wealth is not only money. The Western world will keep making sure that the raw materials are exported and that we do not enjoy them ourselves, this game will keep going. Plus there is a class of cupid who has interest to be partner with people from the western countries as was already the case during slavery. We had our part of responsibility in slavery. And all these people, they know that if we start to own factories, we will stop exporting our raw materials, oil will not be BP anymore but local.
The vast majority of the population are victims of this situation and I do not see any sign of complicity on their side
I fully agree on that point. In my movie about Egypt, we can see that there are two powers playing the game and the population is totally excluded from the equation. In the Western world, they always talk about democratization but the question is why they want to push us towards the democratization. Our tribal systems used to work very well. There was a real hierarchy. Suddenly this word became an insult. I think that accepting the Western framework is something that I reject in advance. I am really curious about the impact that the immigrants will have on that process.