15 Questions with Jehane Noujaim

Jehane Noujaim ’96, famous for her documentary film “Control Room,” which details the Al Jazeera television network, recently organized the
By Synne D. Chapman

Jehane Noujaim ’96, famous for her documentary film “Control Room,” which details the Al Jazeera television network, recently organized the first ever Pangea Day, which debuted on May 10. Pangea Day, designed to bring together independent filmmakers from around the world, was hailed as an event to help foster world peace through technology and mutual respect. Before the Day was upon her, FM sat down with this Harvard grad to discuss her fabulous forms of visual diplomacy, her hopes for the film festival, and her plans for the future.

1.Fifteen Minutes: How did you come up with the idea for Pangea Day?

Jehane Noujaim: Traveling around the world during the World Cup in 2006, I was thinking, wow, this is such an incredible and global event. Imagine if you could get the world’s filmmakers, known and unknown, to get together [and make] a story for the world, by the world. How could you create the ‘World Cup of Storytelling’?

2. FM: Can you explain the quote of yours about Pangea Day, “Once you get to know someone, you can’t kill them”?

JN: It’s harder to kill them. If you can laugh with somebody and relate to somebody, it becomes harder to dehumanize them. I think that most of what we are constantly bombarded with in terms of media leads you to a creation of ‘the Other’ and a dehumanization of ‘the Other,’ and it’s very much an us-versus-them conversation. I’m not saying that world peace will happen on May 11, but I think that this is a small drop in the bucket—or first step toward—trying to get excited about somebody that could live halfway across the world.

3.FM: You’ve traveled and lived in several different parts of the world. If you could be anywhere in the world right now, where would you want to be?

JN: That’s a good question. You know, I’ve traveled to many parts of the world but I’ve never been to India, and I would love to go to India.

4.FM: Why did you decide to work in the film industry?

JN: Well, I took Chem 5 with the dream of becoming a doctor. After Chem 5, I decided that other people would make much better doctors than I would. So I took refuge in the photography lab and the film lab and became a VES and social studies major. Part of my interest in being a doctor was to be able to have skills to continually travel and have a skill that could be used all over the world. [Film] allows you to drop into worlds you would never ordinarily get to experience, so if you make a film about doctors, you can watch and film an operation without going through 12 years of medical school.

5.FM: What do you most enjoy about your career?

JN: There’s never a dull moment. I have actually been very fortunate to be able to make films on my own credit card without having huge funders behind me dictating how the story should be told. I think that the most rewarding part of it is to be able to make something from scratch with a group of other people who believe passionately in what you’re doing, and then see it come to fruition and see that what you shot on a very, very small budget and edited through the night with 15 cups of coffee reaches a big theater and actually affects people.

6.FM: You’re known for your activism as well as your filmmaking. How does each influence the other?

JN: I think that there’s a couple ways to make a film. One is feeling like you have a story in your head, a point that you want to make, and you go out, and you find the characters and you find the story in order to make that point. Then there’s being very curious about an idea or a character, and going and making a film by just following the character and wherever that takes you and what ideas that takes you to really depends on what you find when you’re there. It’s more of a process of discovery, and I would say that the latter is what I do. When I hear the words ‘activist filmmaking,’ I think of somebody who’s an activist, who wants to prove a particular point.

7.FM: Has your activism ever gotten you into any serious trouble?

JN: So far, no. But this is going to be an interesting experiment because we’re showing these films all over the world, including my hometown in Cairo, Egypt, and there are some controversial parts of the program.

8.FM: How has being Egyptian-American affected your work?

JN: Because of the media coverage of particular events that happen in the world, sometimes if I’m in Egypt, I will see completely different coverage—or no coverage at all. But in the States, on another event that happens, I’ll [also] see completely different coverage. So, you are constantly questioning your perspective on things.

9. FM: Can you talk a little bit about the exhibition of Egyptian garb collectors you did when you were 18?

JN: They were actually photographs that I had done at Harvard, and one of the organizers of a big conference on population and development had asked me to put together an exhibit of photographs. So they were blown up and taken over to Egypt and put up on this big wall, and it was great. I was very excited. But the next day, there were a number of complaints, you know: ‘Why are you showing all of these international guests the dirty sides of Egypt?’ By the end of the week, most of the photographs were taken down, and there were about three left remaining. I felt terrible. But [the fact] that these images could have provoked such a strong reaction from people showed me the power of the image.

10. FM: Given the sensitive material that some of your work deals with, are there any reactions that stand out in your mind?

JN: I remember showing the film at Berkeley, and this question of gory images came up again. This guy comes up to me afterwards, who had been a photographer during the Vietnam War. He said, ‘I really think that since the Vietnam War when we photographed everything, there has been an extreme clamp-down on people seeing the realities of war.’ Dehumanizing, desensitizing terms really take us far away from the wars and the destruction.

11. FM: If you couldn’t be a filmmaker, what else would you be?

JN: Probably a writer.

12. FM: If you had three wishes instead of one at the 2006 Technology, Entertainment, Design (TED) conference where you first broached the idea of Pangea Day, what would you have wished for?

JN: The first and second wish is to change the world. I wish I could come up with something funnier than this! [My third wish] is to bring medical supplies to areas that need it: food, water, and medical supplies.

13. FM: What kind of work do you see yourself doing after Pangea Day? Is there anything else you’re currently working on?

JN: Well, lots of filmmaking. I made a film during this time, which was about elections in Egypt, and a couple of films I’m working on, two of which you’ll see excerpts from on Pangea Day.

14. FM: How would you propose to solve the media problem you described in your TED conference talk?

JN: That’s an interesting question, and I don’t have a solution. I don’t know how to solve that problem because I think that everywhere in the world you have to deal with ratings. In the Middle East you have to deal with ratings; in the States you have to deal with ratings You have to appeal to your audience to a certain degree.

15. FM: How are you going to celebrate Pangea Day (May 10, 2008)? How about your birthday a week a later?

JN: I’m going to be in Los Angeles, in the control room for Pangea Day. A lot of the program is going to be happening out of Los Angles, so it will look like a very nondescript location. You know, I haven’t even thought about my birthday. You’ll see—after twenty-five or so, birthdays (laughs)... Yeah, it depends on how Pangea day goes. Maybe I’ll go to Tahiti or something, someplace were there is no media or television, or any kind of link to the outside world.