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Jacqueline Donnet Emerging Documentary Filmmaker Award: The Learning Experience as a Career Path: Jehane Noujaim

By Tom White

Jehane Noujaim

Jehane Noujaim, the co-honoree of the Jacqueleine Donnet Emerging Filmmaker Award, entered Harvard in the early 1990s with the intention of becoming a doctor. But the rigors of the pre-med program, combined with the lure of the photography and filmmaking courses that were offered there, compelled her to shift academic majorsand career paths. But not entirely.

"The part about being a doctor that appealed to me was being able to have a job where you're needed in all parts of the world in some way," she reflects. "To be working with people and helping people. I guess the connection I found is that photography and film could bring out people's voices in a very powerful way."

Born and raised in Cairo, Egypt, Noujaim attended high school in the Boston area before going to Harvard. "You don't automatically think of Harvard as a place to go to for film. But it turned out to be an incredible place just because of the intimacy of the program, the quality of the teaching there and the hands-on expertise." Under the tutelage of such filmmakers as Robb Moss (The Same River Twice), Noujaim learned the value of collaboration, working with as many as eight people through the entire process of a film, from concept to final cut. Upon graduating with a degree in visual arts and social studies, she also earned a Gardiner Fellowship, named for--and endowed by--Robert Gardiner, a longtime professor of anthropology and film. "That was kind of a vote of confidence," she says. "It gave me an extra push that said, 'You should be going out and doing this.'"

Among her earliest projects was an exhibit of photographs of residents in a village in Cairo that was to be mounted at the 1992 United Nations Conference on Population and Development. "A lot of these photographs were of kids that were living in poverty, yet there was a real strength and energy to the community there," Noujaim recalls. "The first reaction from some of the people at the conference was of embarrassment: 'How can you as an Egyptian be showing these photographs when you know there are these foreign delegates coming in?' So one by one, these photos got removed. There were a couple of women from the village who were at this conference selling their goods, and they were surprised by the reaction that people had to the photographs. To them it was just their surroundings. I felt so strongly that this could have been a film--so that these people could be speaking for themselves. That kind of launched me into film; I felt that these people had an important story to tell."

One of Noujaim's first jobs after graduating was as a producer for MTV's Unfiltered, in which young people were selected from across the country to tell their stories, using cameras that the cable channel provided. Part of Noujaim's job was to work with these people, helping them tell their stories and teaching them how to shoot and conduct interviews. She would then edit the footage she'd get in the mail, and put the stories on the air. "I loved this concept," she says. "I thought this was democratic filmmaking. You were able to get at what people across the US were actually feeling, thinking and experiencing. Working at MTV was a really good experience because they put a lot of responsibility into the hands of young filmmakers."

But then again, these shows were only 12 minutes long. "When you keep doing that time after time, you get to a point where you really feel like you want to be going out and doing your own stuff," Noujaim admits. "Some of these stories really do require more breadth and space."

From there, she started casting about for ideas for her next project. At that time, the late 1990s, the Internet was beckoning investors and entrepreneuers alike, and Noujaim's roommate was starting up a Web company with his best friend from high school. In the meantime, the legendary team of DA Pennebaker and Chris Hegedus was looking to make a film about a company. So through a mutual friend, Noujaim began a fruitful partnership cum apprenticeship with the filmmakers.

"I always tell people that a really great way of learning is, if you have somebody that you admire in the film world, to see if you can work on one of their films," Noujaim advises. "There's just so much that you can pick up that you wouldn't learn in a classroom. Working with people who had done this so many times before--just to experience their attitude while making a film was inspiring. Penny always has this incredible ability to turn any mistake in filmmaking into the best thing you could possibly have done; Chris would always say if we felt like we missed a moment, life repeats itself. And these are understandings of how life develops and how these stories develop that you get only after following a number of real life stories this way.", which Noujaim directed with Hegedus, went on to earn a number of awards in 2001, including an IDA Award. Noujaim later worked on the Pennebaker-Hegedus films Down from the Mountain and Only the Strong Survive.

Following the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, Noujaim began thinking about her next project--one that would draw upon her dual heritage as a means to explore issues of concern to both the US and the Middle East. "As somebody who's very much of a part of and very much attached to both worlds, I felt I could get access to a story that would be able to bridge the two worlds in some way," she explains. "Al Jazeera seemed like an interesting place to start because it was using the concept of free press and what Western news is all about and bringing information to the Arab world that had never been challenging different regimes, challenging Arab leaders, having discussions and debate shows. It was becoming this force that was in a way more powerful than any singular Arab leader; governments could not control who had access to Jazeera because it was by satellite."

So after some fits and starts in trying to get access and funding, Noujaim traveled to Al Jazeera's headquarters in Qatar in early 2003, just as the Iraq War was about to begin. Hana Salama, a photographer friend from Cairo, who spoke fluent Arabic, accompanied her--and ended up both shooting and producing his first film. The employees at Al Jazeera, who were used to camera crews from the likes of the BBC coming in for a couple of hours to get a story, were impressed with Noujaim and Salama, who demonstrated early on their desire to spend as much time at the station as was needed. "When you show that you really care strongly about trying to make a film that's going to take a little time and really get at what the channel and the people behind it are about, people open their arms to you," Noujaim maintains.

Control Room, which earned numerous awards on the festival circuit and $2.6 million gross at the box office, has gone a long way in showing the real face of a much maligned entity. In fact, according to Noujaim, some US military bases are screening the film for soldiers about to deploy for Iraq.

"That's what it comes down to--you're throwing yourself into situations where you're intrigued and excited, and you feel like you're on the pulse of what's happening in the world," Noujaim explains. "It's an adventure and it's an amazing opportunity to be dropped into a world that you'd never otherwise get to experience. You meet people that you'd never otherwise get to meet. You're excited to be able to share that with the rest of the world. That's why I do it. I can't imagine a better life. It's a constant learning experience."


 Thomas White is editor of International Documentary.