This year, the Egyptian filmmaker Jihan El Tahri, currently a permanent resident of
South Africa, was the only African jury member of the International Documentary
Film Festival of Amsterdam (IDFA). The director of Cuba, An African Odyssey and
Behind the Rainbow – a probing look at South Africa’s ruling party – spoke to
Screen Africa about her latest film, a three-hour documentary on Egyptian history,
as well as her views on the current state of African cinema.
SCREEN AFRICA: WHAT DO YOU THINK ABOUT IDFA AS AN INTERNATIONAL
PLATFORM FOR AFRICAN FILMS?
Jihan El-Tahri: IDFA is undoubtedly the most important documentary film festival
and film forum worldwide. It is a reflection of our world in many ways. There is
very little space for Africa. (Not because they don’t want it, but because it is a
platform that is aiming at different national TV station where the concern is “what
will my audience think?’) The existing African space is for films that manage to sell
their ideas as a universal mechanism. And it is getting harder and harder.
In the past, I used to think that with time there would be more place for African
films. I’m not sure this is the case. But I guess that it is our job, as African
filmmakers, to articulate our ideas in a universal language because our stories are
universal. The space at IDFA for Africa does exist but is limited.
But they made a special focus on women with a “Female Gaze’ section.
I’m anti-ghetto. I think there’s always a desire to create little boxes and labels and I
hate that. I’m a nomad; I don’t know in which country I live. I try my best not to fit
in a box and I think I succeed quite well, maybe to my own detriment. I think that
trying to pin down why we are different is the first step towards segregation. And
I’m against segregation in any of its forms. What about doing a “Male Gaze’ section?
Female and Male Gaze, that would have been interesting to compare. It just looks
as though we were seen to be those still underdeveloped: “so let’s help them and
see what they can do.’ No! There is no reason.
SCREEN AFRICA: AS A PERMANENT RESIDENT OF SOUTH AFRICA, LIVING IN AND
OUT OF THE COUNTRY SINCE 1999, WHAT DO YOU THINK ABOUT THE FILM
Jihan El-Tahri: The SA industry is a really interesting one. It has all the good
intentions but fails to learn from other people’s mistakes. The SA industry wants to
go to the top: Hollywood where feature films are concerned and on a level that is
very difficult to reach. I think they set their standards really high which is good
because they put their money where their mouth is but at the same time, I’ll say:
“Look at your own treasure.’
SCREEN AFRICA: YOU WERE INVOLVED IN MANY PAN-AFRICAN ORGANISATIONS
SUCH AS FEPACI AND THE AFRICAN FILMMAKERS’ GUILD. EVEN IF THOSE
EXPERIENCES DISAPPOINTED YOU, DO YOU STILL BELIEVE IN AFRICAN
Jihan El-Tahri: I’ll quote Thabo Mbeki: “as improbable as it might sound, Africa is
going to prosper.’ I might be mad, but I absolutely believe that it is going to be a
Most of the hard work of European filmmakers is to sit and write applications and
get funds to make their films. As African filmmakers, we work three times harder!
We face far more obstacles but we definitely have the will and the stories. Because
of new technologies, the space is opening up. I’m not going to say that it is a level
playing field yet, but there is potential to have that. There will be many more
unexpected African films in those future spaces. For example, I have burnt DVDs of
my movies to give to professionals. But people do not have DVD players on their
computers anymore. They need to go straight to the internet. And young African
filmmakers who cannot get to international forums are on the Internet. So their
chances are much better than they used to be. Now, it is part of our job to rise up
to the standards and I’m not sure we’ve done that. So, yes, I have hope for African
My biggest problem with the milieu of African cinema is that it has been planted in
our brain that the cake is not big enough for everyone. The competition and the
attempt to make one star rise and the other crash remains the modus operandi.
Whereas the truth is the opposite: the more we are, the bigger the cake will be and
our voices become heard.
We still try to compete against each other – competition is healthy – but we have to
help each other. There are little initiatives like the Sudan Film Factory where people
are really helping each other. That was also the case in the South African
documentary industry but it cracked. Now they are two different organisations and I
sincerely hope they will not compete to negate each other rather than building on
both of their strengths.
Screen Africa: What is the story of your new project, Egypt’s Modern Pharaohs?
Jihan El-Tahri: My documentary is trying to follow the thread of how visionaries fell
into the trap of dictatorship. It’s in three parts: one is about Nasser, one about
Sadat and one about Mubarak.
I honestly believe that each one of them came with a vision of returning to Egypt’s
glory and bringing Egyptians out of misery. Each one came with a sincere desire to
change the reality of oppression and squalor of Egypt. And each one fell into the
same trap: turning the country into a police state, the military holding on
everything and the gap between rich and poor growing until some people could
barely live and some others did not even know what to do with all their money.
What I am trying to do is to dig out the thread that allows me to follow the process
of how that vision of transforming a country into its glory falls into the same trap.
Each time it is the same: “now is not the time to allow that kind of democracy. Let
us develop first and then allow people to talk.’ What do they do? They muzzle
opposition, they get the police to get all these rebels to shut up, they choke
everyone in prison, they create divisions inside the society, and they blame an
ideology. A country like Egypt has always been middle-of-the-road, secular and
modernised. It was the Paris of the Middle East; watch the movies of the 1950s.
Egyptians were polarised because of political interest, not because of who they
were. I think that no African country ever had time to figure out its post-colonial
identity. Now that we’ve struggled and kicked these people out, who are we? None
of us has successfully moved beyond. Maybe the South Africans but even they’re
still struggling. We need national dialogue among ourselves to know who we are.
We cannot come out from decades of colonialism and pretend that nothing
SCREEN AFRICA: AFTER CUBA, AN AFRICAN ODYSSEY AND BEHIND THE RAINBOW
ABOUT THE ANC, WHAT BROUGHT YOU BACK TO EGYPT?
Jihan El-Tahri: It is a funny thing. I’m obsessed by stories of heroes who stand up
against colonialism that seemed unbreakable then, once they break it, what
happens? I can’t understand where the shift happened. Most of my films are around
the same question. Cuba, An African Odyssey is about the moment of independence.
Behind the Rainbow is about the moment of transition of a liberation movement into
a ruling party and the process of losing dreams. After this film, I didn’t want to
make movies anymore. My Egyptian film was compelling, not because it’s my
country – I did not want to work in Egypt – but because for me, it is the final
chapter of a trilogy. In 1961, placards were saying “Bread-Freedom-Social Justice’
and having the same 60 years later showed, for me, the failure of the post-colonial
state. That psychology of post-colonialism must be re-thought. But I think this
movie will be my last one.
SCREEN AFRICA: WHY?
Jihan El-Tahri: Because I’m not going to make a film just to make a film. These big
stories (Cuba, ANC, Egypt) are complex issues. I don’t want to simplify them. The
main issue is their complexity. I really appreciate that Arte exists because their
demands are not about audience but they’re becoming more like that. That’s why I
think a dinosaur like me does not have much future left. I honestly make films
because there is something I want to say, in my way. And if that space doesn’t
exist, I will find something else to do.
SCREEN AFRICA: THE EGYPTIAN CINEMA INDUSTRY WAS THE FIRST ON THE
CONTINENT IN THE 1940S. WHAT DO YOU THINK ABOUT ITS CURRENT STATE?
Jihan El-Tahri: In my new film, I am using Egyptian features as part of the
illustration instead of archive or as part of the narrative. I have watched almost 180
features from the 1950s onwards. And it boggles my mind that we could have done
so much without being able to impose ourselves internationally. We used to, but
Egypt is in a phase where – maybe because we are 90 million people – self-
sufficient; we don’t look beyond our borders. And I think this impoverished us quite
severely. Since just before 2011, a new generation of filmmakers – specifically
from the documentary scene – came out of Egypt and I am really hopeful for them.
The feature scene should stop resting on their laurels because Egypt’s past glory
can only remain if we don’t take it for granted.
SCREEN AFRICA: YOU WORKED AS A JOURNALIST BEFORE BECOMING A FILMMAKER.
WHAT SPACE DO YOU THINK CINEMA OFFERS TO PEOPLE WHO WANT TO EXPRESS
Jihan El-Tahri: Cinema is an amazing thing. I think I’m part of that not-so-many-
people who have certain skills to tell certain stories – I don’t want to sound
pompous – so it is part of my obligation to tell our stories. We have not told our
stories. Someone else tells every historical, political piece about my region. They
can do that as long as we exist too. They cannot have the monopoly of that space.
But because most filmmakers believe that these historic, political stories are not
sexy, nobody wants to do it. They prefer to make observational films, personal
films, and nobody wants to look at this legacy we have that no one has touched yet!
Cinema has a massive role. As I have said, I am using Egyptian features in my film
because that was the only space for things that was not censored: “Since it’s fiction,
let them talk.’ There are so many real episodes in our history – not specifically
about Egypt but the whole continent – that could be told in fiction but that do not
exist in images or sound, that do not exist at all: they were wiped out of our
history! So, thank God cinema exists.
SCREEN AFRICA: AS THE AFRICAN YOUTH STOOD UP AGAINST GOVERNMENTS IN
TUNISIA, EGYPT, LIBYA, SENEGAL, BURKINA FASO… DO YOU THINK THE SAME
WIND CAN BLOW THROUGH CINEMA?
Jihan El-Tahri: I don’t know. It’s not about our youth having that wind – of course
they have. As long as our funding remains dependent, who will be let through the
door to access that space where they can show that new wind? I’m not sure that’s
going to happen. That’s part of my frustration with pan-African organisations. Where
is the African Fund? It was signed in 2004. Where is it? And why has it not
happened? The point of an African fund is to give power to people to voice their
opinion but when there is African money, it always goes to the ones who are in the
system. The political will to give power to the ones who have different opinions is
not there yet.
– Claire Diao