Egyptian filmmaker Jihan El Tahri,rich in roots of diversity and a wealth of world experience,takes us on her soul rhythm journey, a mission to ignite the spirit of the Motherland Africa. Tuning into insight and wisdom, she captures the heart of African roots beyond maintream media definitions and prescriptions related to what Africa was and wasn't, or what it is and should be.
Starting her career as a journalist, Africa’s legendary filmmaker, Jihan El Tahri. initially worked as a television researcher and news correspondent, covering the politics in the Middle East. This is when she realized the new dawn was on the power of the visual medium.
She then launched into independent filmmaking, producing and directing documentaries for French Tv, PBS, BBC and a range of other broadcasters internationally.
The award-winning,”Behind the Rainbow” explores transition in South Africa.
It chronicles the liberation project of the African National Congress and compromises that eventually led to the historic 1994 elections, the eventual erosion of promises and dreams, raising questions about the present era.
Egypt’s Modern Pharaohs
Jihan El-Tahri has also authored two books The 9 Lives of Yasser Arafat and Israel and the Arabs: the 50 Years War.
She is also an avid visual artist with several exhibitions scheduled throughout the year.
Africa cinema is her passion, telling stories from Africa, for the people by the people.
Filmmaking comes with pain, heartaches and minimal returns…. but when a film is complete it allows a person to voice, to exist, and to be heard, and that makes it worth it when your film continues to make sense, even years later.
Meet # CreatepreneurAfrica: Let’s hear it from the legendary filmmaker Jihan El Thari
1. Tell us what drives you? What is your true passion in life?
To your first question, what drives you and what your true passion is in life?…..
It’s hard to say what my true passion is….because I guess they all intertwined but talking about film and documentary…
I think what really drives me is a real desire to understand and know and chronicle what happened in the whole post-independence periods. Why is it the promises and the vision of that moment of independence that was going to give the people of the continent and the colonized people everywhere….the quality freedom and dignity?Why did not happen, why is that we still there today, I guess that’s the driving question,
but passion if it’s just about what I really am passionate about
- I’m passionate about music
- I’m passionate about film
- I’m passionate about art
So yeah…..I dabble in all three.
2. How did you find your passion and how old were you?
How old was I when I found my passion?
I guess my passion meaning documentary, well like in 1990, so I must have been…..I guess I was ..26 at that time… 1990.
It was during the Gulf war, as a journalist I was covering the Gulf war, and I immediately realized that the game had been overtaken by TVs and no matter how much we wrote, no matter how much we researched, one image was more powerful than anything one did.
But that was just about the image, the way of making films, I think it was a big revelation for me when I saw this film called “Death of Yugoslavia”, it was educational, it was interesting, it was funny and most of all it finally made sense of what was happening in Yugoslavia.
The war had been on for a few years and the more it went on the more one realized well I don’t understand anything, so you just left it behind, zapped it …
Suddenly then there was this documentary, that put it together in a way where I could actually understand, and then you started making sense, and I could take a position. I could think for myself that was the key, thinking for myself.
I guess that’s when I really started making the kind of films that I make because I never give conclusions. Its really about trying to chronicle how things happen and how we got there, and once you understand that, from there a person can decide for themselves, where they stand in that particular event.
3. What about your passion appeals to you the most?
What is it that appeals to me most… RESEARCH. I think I’m really passionate about research mainly because what I really want to do is try and look at stories from a different perspective, because we’ve been told our stories the whole time through Western eyes, through Western stories.
And when I approach a topic what I really try to do most is see it from our own perspective from a southern perspective from the perspective of the people who actually lived it, rather than the colonial masters or the cold war protagonists.
So I try and get to that prism of the story, and so the research cannot just rely on the books and newspapers and the documents because they all written from a Western perspective , so one really has to get down to declassifying document,s get down to finding first-hand eyewitnesses finding stuff that was written in different languages.
I mean, I’m lucky because I can speak four or five languages, I can actually read in these languages what was written by the people themselves, whereas it’s not the case if you only speak English or French you only get that one perspective.
Yes, so that’s what appeals to me the most. And I also love putting together the film at the end…at the end of the day the film is made in the editing, you have a narrative you know where you going, but because of time constraints and how it’s going to broadcast.
The film itself is made in the editing and it’s not my favorite part when I have to cut things down, but that first moment of the editing when I lay down the whole story as it was told to me is quite a big moment for me.
4. What drove you to make money from your passions?
I’ll actually answer 4 and 5 together, what drove you to make money from your passion well I don’t actually make money from my passion unfortunately for me.
I guess I could make money if I did it more superficially, but it does take me four to five years to make a film, and because of that most of the time I don’t get paid anything reasonable even.
Just for an anecdote: When I finished “Behind the rainbow”, my accountant as we finalized the account, and as I was walking out, he stopped he said, you do realize that the cleaning lady earned more than you did on this film?”
And it’s because she obviously got paievery timeme she worked. I had a lumpsum, which is fine in one year but when stretching over four years, you barely make ends meet …which accounts for me doing other things on the side like teaching and so forth,, so that’s question 4…
5.When was the first time you were paid for your passion?
When was the first time I was paid for my passion? I’m going to stick to the documentary but I could also say photography, my very first job.
When I was 19 was as a photographer and I remember clearly, I was working for Reuters, and my first salary paid for taking pictures that I thought was the most amusing thing as I would have paid to go take these pictures, but now I was being paid to do that.That was when I first started working as a photographer at Reuters, that must have been in 1984 or something.
In documentary when I started documentary, I was already a professional in the sector, so obviously I got paid, meaning I had budgets in which I got paid if there was any leftover!
6. What kept you going when you thought about giving up?
I thought about giving up many times, especially in the middle of the film when things go completely out of sync.
“Behind the rainbow” was a good example, when for six months, absolutely everyone I had interviewed for research and was a 1oo percent onboard of the film suddenly when I came back with a camera, nobody wanted to talk.
It took about six months for me to get the first interview and my cameraman whose German had come to South Africa for the shoot and instead of 26 or 27 days he was paid for the shoot he stayed for six months. That was a very depressing moment.
And my co-producer, Steven Markovitch from Big world cinema, you know, as a producer, he realised that we couldn’t go on like this and everyone wanted to shut down the project but I’d went too far, I spent already three years, and there was no way I wasn’t going to make that film, especially because I thought it was an important film.
So the short answer to what motivates me to keep going when I think should give up, is because I don’t just make films , I really grapple with topics that I think are important for me and people like me, people who believe in Africa, people who want a better future , so I guess that’s what keeps me going.
7. What motivates you every day to be even more successful?
What motivates me every day to be even more successful?
I don’t actually think of myself as successful. I just feel I’m lucky to do what I do. and I put my whole heart in it. I’m not sure what successful means because depending on the criteria I m actually not successful at all.
I don’t earn enough money to keep me going’, so I’m lucky that I have multiple things that I do because it keeps me floating but I engage with what I believe in and what I love and do it to the fullest.
For the past year, for example I’ve been doing visual arts. I started about five years ago, but over the past year I’ve basically only been doing exhibitions and visual art projects, and I’ve done at least four exhibitions that year and I have four or five to come this year, and I love each and everyone, they’re different topics.
And I guess it’s being able to use different formats in order to deal with all the questions you have personally and try to find a way to express them.
So as much as my documentaries are extremely talkative, my visual arts work or my contemporary arts work there isn’t a single words its just visual, I think having an alternative format to grapple with more or less same issues is wonderful, so I put my whole heart into it and try to do it as best as I can
8.What do you have to say to all of the people who doubted you?
The people who doubted me…… well I guess there’s people who still doubt me. People will always doubt others, but what will I tell them?……. I’ll tell them good luck, go find your own passion and go do something beautiful and that you believe in.
I don’t really pay attention to people who doubt me or don’t doubt me because I don’t particular…I guess…care..
I don’t care. what I’m seen as, as long as I’m doing what I think is the right thing and as long as I don’t overstep boundaries, not politically speaking of course, but overstep boundaries like don’t forecast in terms of cultural and other things.
I most of the time work with stories that I believe in and care about but I’m not part of the community I’m talking about, like for example my film about Zambia or my film about South Africa.
I lived there I cared about it but I’m a not Zambian and I’m not South African, so I do care about not overstepping cultural borders, that in order for my work to remain relevant, in order for the people from that place identify with it too. but obviously you never win everybody and if you do win everybody over….then you’ve done something wrong, as there is always one side of the story that wants negate the other,
9.What advice do you give to aspiring creative is who look up to you?
I must say I get very touched and almost embarrassed now that my age is advancing, young people come up to me and tell me that you know that look up to me or that I inspire them, it’s very touching because I guess one never thinks that work one does will resound on a much larger scale
What do I have as advice….. I basically will repeat what I have said over and over hold on to the stories you care about and go out and find out about them,
Don’t let people tell you what they about, go find your own angle go expose find discover engage with what matters to you, and I think even when people tell you oh you not the right person to do so,,oh you this oh you not allowed that, forget about all this something that you feel matters to you.
Go out and get it, and give it time and give it love, AND I UNDERLINE, GIVE IT TIME…because in our day and age its much more time than money makes a difference.
Money is obviously important but money is the way lots of people sell there soul, so if you care about something go find money in a different sector, but with your passion, give it TIME, give it LOVE.
And if it doesn’t give you enough money, don’t sell your soul for money, get the money somewhere else we all have multiple skills, so find that skill, I’ve translated, I worked as a driver …..I’ve done everything under the sun when I needed money, there’s no shame in working, so follow your passion.