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Inhabiting Silent Spaces: An Interview with Jihan El-Tahri

In: Studies in World Cinema
Author:
Geli MademliAmsterdam School of Cultural Analysis, University of Amsterdam, The Netherlands, geli.mademli@gmail.com

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Abstract

An in-depth discussion with French-Egyptian filmmaker Jihan El-Tahri on her working methods and practices, which are informed by the “south as a state of mind” and driven by the motivation to give voice to the people who are marginalized by dominant media and discourses of power. By shedding light onto the ways in which she navigates through audiovisual archives to structure her politically charged documentaries, she reveals the potential of liminal images to narrate history from unprecedented angles, thus reinforcing collective memory and solidarity.

Abstract

An in-depth discussion with French-Egyptian filmmaker Jihan El-Tahri on her working methods and practices, which are informed by the “south as a state of mind” and driven by the motivation to give voice to the people who are marginalized by dominant media and discourses of power. By shedding light onto the ways in which she navigates through audiovisual archives to structure her politically charged documentaries, she reveals the potential of liminal images to narrate history from unprecedented angles, thus reinforcing collective memory and solidarity.

If every act of archiving is a colonial invention, in the words of Ann Laura Stoler (2002), how can a contemporary artist and thinker resist regular taxonomies and silent gestures of categorization to challenge visible or invisible structures of power? The life and work of Jihan El-Tahri, one of the most prolific filmmakers on the African continent and beyond, are paradigmatic for this radical defiance of normative attributes and canonical divisions, not only in terms of her working methodology, but also in what concerns her own diasporic identity: Born in Beirut, Lebanon, carrying a dual (French-Egyptian) nationality, and having lived in more than thirty countries in the course of her life, El-Tahri has been producing and directing documentaries with a unique political voice since the 1990s, and is constantly expanding her practice to different fields of vision – from writing to teaching, from distribution to mentoring, from the art world to the heart of different associations and institutions working with Pan-African cinema. Besides, her choice to name her production company ‘Big Sister’ (and to underline that she “is watching you”) exceeds the scope of a gendered wordplay and a customary reference to the trappings of the society of spectacle and surveillance: If the company’s objective is to “underline cultural diversity in the audiovisual field [and] to create a cooperation platform with professionals coming from the South,” according to the mission statement,1 this is done through the makings of a purposeful, borderless gaze on history, memory, and actuality.

El-Tahri, who early on worked as a foreign correspondent and researcher covering Middle East politics for major news agencies, gained increased international attention with a series of films that investigated the complex dynamics between seemingly discrete political regimes and ideologies that has helped perpetuate colonial dominance in the global South: The House of Saud (2004) focuses on the entanglement between the White House and Saudi Arabia’s leaders, revealing the treacherous balance between Islamic tradition and modernity, constantly fueled by the oil economy. Cuba, an African Odyssey (2007) narrates an untold story about the overriding presence of the Cold War rivals in Africa – a vast excavation area full of natural riches for the Americans, and a seedbed for Communism in the eyes of the Soviet Union – but also about the (ideological and military) interaction between African revolutionaries and Cuban guerrillas, persistently reconfiguring the notion of internationalism. Returning to the issue of revolutionary movements, Behind the Rainbow (2009) follows the transformation of South Africa’s African National Congress from an organization fighting Apartheid to the country’s leading party, using as a vehicle the personal story of the relationship between two former brothers-in-arms. And through the portrait of Egypt’s most iconic public figure, whose name has been associated with the making of the post-colonial state, Nasser (Egypt’s Modern Pharaohs, 2015) explores the regimes of oppression that capitalized on his politics and eventuated in the Revolution in Tahrir Square.

El-Tahri’s meticulous and highly personal involvement with the archival image and her fearless, profound, manifold readings of the narratives that are stratified both within and beyond the contours of the frame, not only propose subjectivity as a force of opposition and resistance, but also prompt us to consider the different registers of representation: as a depiction – and primarily of the elements that are not evident or visible – and as a gesture of delegation of the voiceless and the subaltern. In the interview that follows, the filmmaker discusses her method of approaching (arti)facts and stories, while navigating through what she calls ‘silent’ and ‘liminal’ spaces. Eventually, she recognizes the emancipatory potential of the processes of othering (with its deep resonances with archival governance), by openly questioning or appropriating nominal attributes – including those of non-western women’s cinema – to reclaim one’s agency.

While doing some research on the early days of your involvement in documentary making, I was drawn by something you said regarding your work as a journalist during the Gulf War: you mentioned in another interview that somehow you felt the need to change paths exactly because you felt prompted to pick a side when it came to media representation. So I was wondering how you assess that in relation to your positionality and the question of subjectivity in your reading of history in documentary making. It’s interesting, because in the news media, you’re asked to be ‘objective,’ even though you are responding to political agendas, whereas it seems to me that making documentaries is exactly the opposite, somehow.

Figure 1
Figure 1

Jihan El-Tahri (left) and Geli Mademli (right) in conversation via Zoom.

Citation: Studies in World Cinema 1, 2 (2021) ; 10.1163/26659891-bja10008

You’ve touched on three really important points here. But if you’ll allow me, I’m going to start a bit earlier, from my first job ever as a photographer and from the whole idea of capturing the story through a frame, which was fascinating for me for a long time. I was covering the war in Lebanon, and I was always very conscious of the sequence of still frames – first this frame, then another, and then one … So I began to realize that these sequences were narrating stories, and I gradually worked on the idea of moving from the single frame. And I started writing. But the Gulf War shifted me to documentary because of the change in the nature of the media space, or the knowledge space as I prefer to call it, because the media are in a sense the first draft of history, and the people on the frontline are actually providing that knowledge. During the Gulf War, I was very aware that a written article did not have the immediacy of television, which by the late 90s had superseded the printed press in terms of power, importance, and defining the prism through which people are seeing the story. So I think my shift toward documentary – the moving image first, and then documentary – stemmed from the fact that I really did not like what I was seeing in terms of the news media and wanted to examine the prospect of having more time to contact the right person to get the real information, and not just half an hour. Because that’s what journalism had become: you have a deadline and everything really depends on who picks up the phone. I was very uncomfortable with this.

Now, in terms of the agenda, I’m still not sure I can name it or analyze what it was they were doing. All I knew was that I was being directed toward certain stories, although I was the one on the ground for a period of almost a year. At the beginning, you’re a bit uncomfortable, then you start shouting, rejecting, and then you realize that actually you don’t have a choice. So, you don’t quite know what to do. You’re in the middle of a war. So you can’t just get back and say no. During the Gulf War, it was all mayhem and confusion, so you had to get the job done as best as you could. I think the worst moment for me was when I won the US National Press prize for reporting on the Gulf War. That would be the last prize I ever wanted. So it really got me to sit and think, Okay, who the hell are you? And what is it you want to say, and why do you even think you have anything to say? I think that’s where one should start. Who the hell do I think I am? Up until that moment, I had never been aware of my positioning as an individual. I saw myself as someone who spoke multiple languages, lived and engaged with multiple cultures, and could be put anywhere. I would deal with it. But that was the first time I was obliged to define who I was. Which is a very complicated matter. So when I talk about taking sides, it’s more about what is the narrative that I, as an individual, am going to flag. I’m not saying that what I have to say is worthy. But that’s how I got to the conclusion that that’s where I was going to go. I think I have a privilege that others don’t have. My dislocation, at once physical, cultural, and in terms of belonging – as an immigrant, an exile, you name it – forms a profile that is shared with many others who do not have a voice. I’m from the south, which for me is not a single space: it’s a state of mind. Understanding how we got from the vision and the possibility of becoming something else, how we were interrupted in this process, and how we got where we are, is what I constantly try to engage with.

As for objectivity, that’s a word that has caused me many problems. Throughout my career, I’ve played with many formats – I’ve made observational films, essay films, all sorts of films – but people somehow only remember my last eight or nine films, perhaps because these are the ones that got some kind of recognition, if you will. In talks and Q&As, people always tell me, “it’s amazing how objective you are,” and this really used to offend me. I’m using the word ‘offend’ knowingly, because I was very annoyed that what I was trying to do was understood as fixed and definitive, whereas all I was aiming to do was to lay a brick upon which others could build; a brick that would open a conversation where we would all start grappling with what I have proposed. Also, I didn’t feel there was anything objective about what I was doing, since I choose the people who will tell their stories. I choose them to be funny or not. I choose what the single narrative can be. I choose everything. I don’t think the word ‘objective’ is a compliment. If you don’t know what the objective is, how do you even start to become objective?

Perhaps the moments of factual and first-hand eye witnesses are confused with objectivity?

I think working with witnesses to the stories gives us a sort of knowledge, a texture, and a kind of common denominator with which we can start a first narrative. This is only one element of the dialogue I’m proposing, though. But the fact – see, I’m using this word again, but I’m also interested in the word ‘factual,’ because it seems that we’re asking for something to be proven before our very eyes so that we can have a leap of faith, and then engage ourselves in something. So that said, I think that facts do exist, but the key is how we align with the facts. It’s exactly like making a carpet. Suppose that factually you have the same threads, five, six colors of them, but the pattern you make out of them is never the same. So I do think facts exist. But how we weave these facts into a narrative is a completely subjective and creative process.

But, say, in science labs, when people discover certain things, or produce facts, I guess this comes as a result of many social interactions and specific conditions that have to do with humans being in this black box in the first place, right? So do you think that your understanding of facts somehow informs your involvement with archives – both in relation to the archival research you conduct for your films, but also in your recent institutional engagement? I’m curious about how you work on a more nuts and bolts basis, how you enter an archival space and how you work with things that are technically named or categorized by a larger system or structure – let alone by metadata.

Maybe this was a disadvantage after all, coming too early to a space that is currently developing, whereas now I’m heading somewhere else already… But my fascination with the image started really early on, and I was collecting archival images, not knowing exactly why for a long time. When I first started working with the archive, it was at a time when nobody was interested in this structure. Everybody thought I was crazy, people would ask me, why don’t you just go shoot? Why do you want to go through all that trouble? At the time, nobody was asking for release forms. Nobody was paying for the zine. I was interested in stuff that usually ended up in the garbage. There were a few archives linked to national institutions, but they were primarily intended for researchers and doctorates and so forth. The things deposited there had nothing to do with you on the creative side of things. But on a personal level, I guess it comes, again, from the years after the Gulf War, I was most fascinated by the silent spaces. Not necessarily by what existed, because you can go out and shoot what existed. I was more fascinated by what wasn’t there? What was there? Where did it come from? So it’s actually a parallel to the question that all my films deal with. How did this originate?

The first phase of my films that came from working with archives, I would call archeology. The minute I find a piece of footage that nobody has seen before I get so excited. You think that you’re inserting your own bit of knowledge within the bigger picture, and that was really exciting. It was like archeological digs, going into archives that nobody had ever spent months with, you know, figuring out what is lost forever, what can be preserved, what can be restored. In the making of my second or third film, I started thinking about where the footage came from? Who filmed it? So, from archeology, I moved into questioning the context. And then it becomes a very wide question, because then you start wondering why they shot this. What else was happening around it? Thus contextualizing the image eventually became something really important for me. I didn’t want to use an image unless I knew why it was shot; why this particular image was now sitting in a space where I can use it to continue the narrative. So then came the third phase, which was about representation. When I was making the Nasser film (2015), the idea of representation came to me. All the footage I found was basically solely of a single hero. It was never an image of him looking depressed, having a discussion, sitting doing nothing. It was always him and the crowds cheering. I was like “hold on a minute! This guy was there for that long! So many things have happened. How can I not find an image that shows him differently than the hero representation?” So the whole concept of representation of the hero led me to analyzing other images. Comparing images prompts you to figure out the consistent parts of these images, which also gives you a real perspective of who sent out this crew to do what? (After all, the fact that you are picking up the telephone, gathering stock, renting big cameras, means that there is money involved on the part of the people who are sending you). So where is this narrative coming from? These are basically my three stages of engaging with the archive. Right now, I’m expanding this list to include the question of appropriation, because every time you use an archive image, as an artist or as a filmmaker, you are actually creating a new archive, as you are recontextualizing it and re-representing it.

Could you elaborate on the notion of silent spaces? I feel that somehow it relates to what you’re discussing as a methodology – the silent space, of course, is the space of the archive and the researcher, but there are silent spaces within the image as well. And then of course, there is the editing, the montage and the cuts, but perhaps we also experience the silent spaces within the actual thing we see. Or is there a reproduction of silent spaces in this process that you describe? I’m wondering if this is the space where you find people who don’t have a voice.

The archival program we launched in February is called ‘People’s Stories,’ bridging the silent and liminal spaces of the African imagery. I added ‘liminal’ because from silent spaces, I move, additionally, to liminal spaces, that is, spaces of transit, where you can enter, but once you have, you’re stuck there. You’re in this liminal space where you’re neither here nor there. And I think you need to remember that I am from the south, which gets me back to the we. I have chosen to be from the south, and my choice has concentrated on Africa as a continent. That, however, does not exclude diasporas from the south. But my space is Africa as the South – a very interesting space, because as we know, that’s where we all come from. But also because it’s the last frontier in many ways, in the sense that we still have space to engage. We’re so far behind that the deal is not done yet.

In the world today, the space of expression is the equivalent of having the dominance of guns and money. If you do not access that, you’re silenced. There are so many silenced and liminal spaces that have the potential to become something else, which is why I think it’s really important that someone like me engages with them. We have a system of education that doesn’t make space for our cultural appropriation and engagement with who we are. Yet I keep returning to the pronoun we, and when I say we, I say it in terms of people like myself who are displaced physically, intellectually, and culturally. Physically, because half of us are dispersed around the world for all sorts of reasons. And being Black is not a color. It’s a state of mind. It’s a state of exclusion. It’s a state of multiple oppressions, as a woman, as someone whose hair cannot be identified – if you don’t know where to place me, you are othering me. So I’m very happy to be part of a we, because it comes from that space that I’m talking about, that space of being othered, which I take on as a badge of honor and not as an inferiority. That space of othering is a space of engagement is a space of expression, it is a space of finding and making space, and of allowing this ‘other’ to be recognized as a dimension of diversity in its good sense, as an enrichment, because the more we know about the other, the more we are enriched. So, given what I’ve just said, the silent spaces are where every single film I want to make or story I’ve ever proposed play out. In this process, I have always tried to find an angle for my voice to be heard. If I cannot express myself through the dominant narrative, I slip into the silent space. But bits of the silent spaces can emerge in the dominant narrative – at least in my experience.

But other than the process of finding a way to crack the dominant narrative, don’t you see a danger in the reverse process, where the dominant narrative appropriates elements it considered subversive to promote a neutral pretense of ‘diversity’? It seems that the film industry insists on boxes to be ticked and strategizing political correctness, addressing niche audiences so that more funds can be securely allocated. Probably this is a question akin to whether the master’s tools can dismantle the Master’s house.

Figure 2
Figure 2

Jihan El-Tahri at the Syros International Film Festival. Photo: Myrto Tzima.

Citation: Studies in World Cinema 1, 2 (2021) ; 10.1163/26659891-bja10008

Let’s not forget that the current audiovisual space is barely 25 years old. This whole web of workshops, residencies, funding institutions didn’t exist when I started out making films. I’d never heard of a residency, there was absolutely no door to knock on to go get funding. So this shift came out of something. And it’s going to shift again. Actually, I think we’re experiencing a new shift right now. But we haven’t identified what the shift looks like yet. So I don’t think that the present system is one I should bow to, but – unfortunately, or fortunately for myself – I think I have actually used the system. If I can find the crack, I’ll use it. Why shouldn’t I?

Now, to get back to silent spaces through a different path: I think that what I try to shy away from is that whole new layer of ngo s, nonprofit organizations that create ‘important’ topics, no matter what their importance is on the ground. So when women’s institutions, and women’s funding, and unesco funding (and God knows whose funding!) decide that we have to make space for women’s voices, and somebody comes up with genital mutilation or lesbianism in the third world as ‘very interesting topics,’ you end up imposing them on a society that actually has a completely different priority. I mean, if you go to a village somewhere in the south of Chad and talk to people about women’s rights in a format straight out of a Western perspective of what women’s rights should be, you are transforming their cultural heritage instead of respecting it. It’s part of the uniformization of what it means to be a woman. This is part of the reason why people address me as a ‘woman director.’ I usually don’t want to talk about it, because gender doesn’t actually play a role in how I’m thinking as a director. Now, it does play a role in how I proceed with certain things. But when I’m considering the factors that affect the way I think about things, I think that gender comes perhaps number six or seven down the line. Why am I suddenly supposed to put it as priority number one, just because the funding institutions see my gender as my trump card? I don’t think it’s my trump card, and I actually don’t want it to be. Now, will I acknowledge the need for making space for other women who don’t have that space? Is it a worthy deed? Yes, definitely. But what do you do with this acknowledgement? You must open the door for them to express their own silent spaces, not the one you think should be highlighted.

Are you suggesting that the way discussions around gender are given priority is an extension of the Western narrative, in the sense that it can seemingly engage people on that side of the world more ‘safely’ – as opposed to race, nation, or class?

Absolutely. I come from a culture that has had many articulations. Let’s not go back to the pharaohs, but we do tend to forget the first female fighter pilot. Nobody talks about her. The very first female pilot in Morocco was a Black woman. To make sure that nobody talks about her, we are talking about women’s liberation, and showing sympathy for the poor women who now need to get out of their shell. But if in the early 50s, a Black woman in Morocco or Nigeria or Egypt could be a fighter pilot, it should also be mentioned that the Egyptian women’s movement brought down the government in 1951. So women’s movements have always existed, as have women’s voices. What I want to highlight more than this visible side, is that in every Egyptian or southern household, a woman’s role is critical. What her husband thinks and decides is a different form of power, a different kind of articulation. If you want to say that her power, or her empowerment as a woman, is only relevant if she’s part of a movement and her name is out in the newspaper, for me that is a Western format.

When it comes to your role as facilitator or mentor (for example, in the initiative ‘Women in dox’), what sort of micro-practices and everyday gestures are you interested in? Do you recognize that social practices between people of the same gender can foster different types of collectivity and filmmaking?

I have multiple hats, which has been very useful for me in designing different programs, as my springboard for designing them was the thought of all the problems I have faced as a filmmaker, as a producer, as a visual artist, in distribution and beyond. It’s about the space of stories.

As we previously discussed, it’s the kind of stories I and people like me – and spaces, entire spaces like me – think are important, but the dominant narrative just does not find them significant. As a producer, it’s not only about the money, but about how you engage with the filmmaker. I ended up creating my own production company after having worked with producers who were telling me no, this is the only way you can make this film. I obviously wanted to say something else. But you’re stuck with a producer who won’t listen to you, who obliges you to sit in that format, because that’s the only way they can sell it. I know that as a producer, I need to be listening to the filmmaker’s voice first. And it’s up to me to find the strategy that is best for that voice. And then there is language. In Tunisia, Jordan, Sudan, and Egypt, the participants of the program are all women. Arabic language resonates for more or less the same culture, but it’s fascinating how culture is spoken, the number of bridges that need to be built between them, just in terms of a word. There has been a lot of engaging with these cultural differences attached to the diverse uses of specific words within the same language. That diversity of cultures within harmonious spaces is fascinating.

One of the most interesting things about the program you mention is that we start from the idea and follow through to the delivery. We engage for a whole month, everyone comes up with all the ideas around the films they want to make, why each of them, individually, wants to make that particular film. People wanted to make films about the world, obviously bringing a woman’s voice into it. That’s what I think is precious. Because a woman’s eye, a woman’s vantage point is already an addition. But perhaps when you’re having a woman tell the story of a woman, you’re turning it into a ghetto again… Why do we have to put everything in a box? A woman’s voice is through her eyes, it’s through her thinking. It’s about how she reads literature. It’s about how she sees architecture. I think that what is empowering women is the recognition that you can tell any story you want, and tell it through your eyes and your voice. The space I am fighting for is the space of alternative voices. That is, a crack in the dominant narrative. The best I am hoping for is to keep that crack open.

Reference

Stoler, Ann Laura. (2002). Colonial Archives and the Arts of Governance. Archival Science 2, pp. 87109.

1

See Big Sister’s website: https://jihaneltahri.com.

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