Jihan El-Tahri: The idea of sitting around a negotiating table



My name is Jihan El-Tahri. I’m a filmmaker, producer, writer and a woman on an aeroplane. All the time! The title of the project can’t be more appropriate. And I’m not really sure where to begin. My very first job was as a photographer. I was a photojournalist in the war zones of the early 1980s like the civil war in Lebanon. From there I started writing for Reuters, then for newspapers and later for different formats, magazines and radio ... I think I’ve done every single format under the sun.
The turning point came in late 1980s and especially with the 1991 Gulf War when it was clear to me that what I was looking for profes- sionally was no longer doable. It was very clear by the moment of the Gulf War that journalism and everything connected to journalism was not the right avenue for me. Journalism is where the first draft of history is written – and I was trying to find a narrative of history that I would be part of and involved in its articulation. But, in terms of space and in terms of how it’s done, no longer gave that space for an individual voice, especially not a voice from the South.

So I turned to different kinds of filmmaking, starting with journalistic, then going into observational and then I guess dabbling in formats all with an aim to find my place. When I talk about the films I made I only talk about the last eight – I exclude everything I did before. My earlier work feels like part of the search for my own voice. However, my last eight films, deal with political history and these made me realize that I had found what was looking for.

Returning to the theme of this project – it is quite funny that after every single screening of my films usually the first question is: As a female filmmaker, how come there are no women in your films? And it is indeed ironic that women are excluded in my films but that is intentional because they are flagrantly excluded from the histories I’m talking about. So, it’s not just that I could not find any women, it’s also because if I put a women and give her a major role it would be a form of falsifying the narrative that was transmitted and that we live with. And the angle or the vantage point from which I have decided to make most of my films is that of the perspective of those who hold the reigns of power because the narrative of power is the one that history retains. It is the narrative to which we, regular people, submit to because we have no way of knowing better. The mythologies of independence are based on what is documented from the point of view of those who emerged as winners from the decolonizing process. Yes, there are many films on small social issues seen through the lense of the people on the ground, but the grand narrative of history that is transmitted in history books is the one that is delivered by the decision makers.

If that is the history that will be handed down to us, then at some point I decided that I need to start understanding the decision makers: Who are they? What are they thinking? What are their relationships? What happens to these people once they attain power? How did they lose the dream they had when they were freedom fighters? What is their story? What is their personal eyewitness account and why is it that they want to underline a specific narrative?

Although my films are all quite different and happening in different spaces, somehow they all deal with the same issue: What happened to the inspiring vision of independence? It was in many ways a collective vision, they all wanted to get rid of colonialism and build a brave new world to come out of a moment of crisis into a bright new future! And now look at the state of the world we live in, how did we get from there to here? That is my central research path, if you want. How did the vision collapse? How did the desire for that vision get corrupted, how was it thwarted?

And to get back to women in this context: I’ve done a lot of work on liberation movements and it is striking when you start looking closely at the issue of the absence of women, obviously in Africa, but elsewhere too. I made this film called Cuba, an African Odyssee [1], which was about Cuban support for African revolutions – this meant that I had to look at the Cuban revolution itself and to my surprise there were all these women that you never heard about or seen. You always have this wonderful picture of Camilo, Che and Fidel, but Celia Sánchez is nowhere to be found. She was there too at the front, but hardly ever in the pictures that became part of the official history. So, the exclusion of women from the narrative, which I participate in, I participate in their exclusion because I use their absence to make a point about their erasure from these narratives.

When we proceed to tell a story in film, the form and the format you will be working with, is the first decision that guides the film maker. So, the mental editing before you go to the physical editing, is often what defines the trajectory. It is here that the first step towards exclusion happens: What is going to fit in the limited space available to tell a story and is going to be left out? Women are at a disadvantage since they are already excluded from the archive material itself that you’re using to construct a narrative. That material is the major source for piecing together a reality that we have not been taught. The mythologies constructed around our histories are multiple and we really don’t know what really happened yet. From the moment of independence until now – at least the countries in which I have been working with including my country, Egypt – you suddenly realize the amount of fallacies we accept when you’re trying to reconstruct these histories. There has been a consistent, intentional and coherent fabrication of a mythology of what independence was, how it came about and who the heroes of that independence were. This fabricated exclusive narrative becomes a reality, when actually it was never a reality in the first place. We know that others who were key in liberation struggles were simply wiped out of our collective consciousness, yet we accept these mythologies that become our history and that we accept on face value. This has happened in almost every country. Let’s take the example of Algeria.

We know of Ben Bella, Ben M’hidi, Boumediane and other key FLN figures. We even know Ali la Pointe’s story through The Battle of Algiers [2], but we don’t know much about the women who were amongst the front liners in the FLN struggle. Djamila Bouhired, we just know her as the woman who bombed the café. But Djamila Bouhired, to get to that point of bombing the Cafe, had a whole history with the FLN. And we don’t know anything about that history. So the woman becomes the figure which is the exception: Oh wow, was there a woman hijacker? Was there a woman terrorist? And that’s why when we were talking with Marie-Hélène, I asked her to get that book Shoot the Women First [3].

I would like to backtrack to the moment when I decided to move from journalism to filmmaking. It was at that moment of the Gulf War and I was completely disillusioned and questioning everything: Who am I? What am I supposed to be doing? I was covering the Gulf war for an American publication while American troops were destroying one of the oldest civilizations in the region I belong to. So where do I fit in that paradox? Am I telling their narrative? It was a very complicated moment where identity was a big issue, where the spaces in which you deliver a narrative was an issue. Once the Gulf War was over, I literally pulled out of everything and ques- tioned my space as a woman, as an Arab or as an African. I was constantly faced with the dilemma of responding to what seemed a valid question: Are you an Arab or are you an African? I always felt I was obliged to choose and was constantly in conflict with, which one of the two am I really. At some point I dared to break the structure of thought imposed on me and I finally managed to ask: Why can’t I be both? I actually am both. So, it’s how you integrate be- ing a woman, and an Arab and an African that is the question. That was something I was finally willing to fight for: the AND rather than OR. I don’t see why only the Arab ethnic group on the African con- tinent needs to justify its Africanness. The Peul exist in a number of African countries, they share a common language and specific tradtions and they migrated from the space now referred to as ‘The Arab World’ yet I don’t think the Peul have to say: I’m a Peul, but I’m African. But as an Arab somehow you needed to do that.

To get to Shoot the Women First, Eileen McDonald – the angle from which she comes is the IRA. And I was very interested in the IRA at the time. Reading this book about female terrorists, by someone in a position to give insight about them, was fascinating. The provocative title Shoot the Women First is a debate in itself, there are five/ six different versions as to who actually said that famous phrase. The predominantly accepted origin is that the German anti-terrorist squad GSG 9 basically said that when there’s a female terrorist, she is so committed that she has nothing to lose so she will cause the most trouble. Therefore if you come to a hijacking space you shoot the woman first and then there will be less problems.

And so what interested me in that book wasn’t the terrorists, since the words terrorist and terrorism had a different resonance at the time, in the 1970s and 1980s it was clear that today’s terrorists would be recognized as tomorrows’ freedom fighters. What interested me was why she chose just the women because it was so unusual, even for her, that a woman can be a terrorist. So that “function” was somehow reserved for men. This book basically inspired me to look deeper into the females of liberation movements: How did they get into and commit to a liberation movement? How they decided to go into the bush, which entailed leaving their family, sometimes their children and breaking with traditions? But mostly, why none of these women ended up as part of the power structures that emerged once independence was obtained?

One of the really interesting concepts I ran into was the idea that women once engaged in struggle became firmly in the mode of no compromise. Practically every single independence on the continent came out of a negotiated settlement. I don’t think any ‘African revolution’ as such, actually technically, won the battle for independence. However, the struggle itself obliged the adversary to retreat in whatever form that ended up bringing independence.

The empire was collapsing in three main phases: the first phase, which is the 1960s starting with, let’s say 1952/53, but concretized by 1956, where it was clear that France and especially Britain could no longer sustain its colonies financially, they were obliged rather than willing to hand independence to all these new nations. Thirty countries got independence between 1960/62. The second phase of the 1970s, where it was real armed struggle: countries like Angola, Mozambique, Guinea Bissau, Cap Verde; and in the 1980s Zimbabwe and South Africa. But Mozambique, for example, was one of the revolts that had the greatest number of women. Women were very present, but where are they now?

All these liberation movements had to sit around the negotiating table to define the nature of relations of the future. Why were there never any women sitting around the negotiating table? That was something that I wanted to look into – given the concept of no compromise – under the title of Shoot the Women First.

Often what actually happens in that moment of transition to independence, is that the deals struck become the founding infrastructure of the post-colonial state. So, for example the dependency on the metropole, in the case of francophone Africa, was guaranteed through the deal struck regarding the currency, the CFA – all of these are the negotiated settlements that then become to undermining elements of real independence which I think we never really got. In every Liberation movement there were women high up enough within the ranks. So, maybe all these independence movements would have been better off having their less compromising female comrades around the table. The case of the ANC in South Africa is probably the most obvious. Many women were high rank- ing in the organization and yet, only one or two sat around the table, mostly in a secretarial rather than a decision making role.

[1] Cuba, an African Odyssey (2007, 118 min, France); written and directed by Jihan El-Tahri; cinematography by Frank Meter Lehmann; music by Les Frères Guissé; edited by Gilles Bovon; produced by Temps Noir.

[2] The Battle of Algiers (1966, 120 min, Italy/Algeria); directed by Gillo Pontecorvo; written by Franco Solinas and Gillo Pontecorvo; Music by Ennio Morricone and Gillo Pontecorvo; cinematography by Marcello Gatti; edited by Mario Morra and Mario Serandrei; produced by Antonio Musu and Saadi Yacef.

[3] Eileen MacDonald, Shoot the Women First (New York: Random House, 1992).