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One Giant Leap: Pangea Day Offers a Global Cinematic Experience

By Taylor Segrest

"If we could read the secret history of our enemies, we should find in each man's life sorrow and suffering enough to disarm all hostility."

--Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

Jehane Noujaim (, Control Room) loves this quote. She's never afraid to use it. So when she won the esteemed TED Prize in 2006 ( and was asked by the annual enlightenment juggernaut of the same name to make "One Wish to Change the World," it was a no-brainer: World Peace.

"Now, I know what you're thinking," she told an elite audience at the TED conference. "This poor girl thinks she's at a beauty pageant."

But Noujaim is serious. Born of an American mother and an Egyptian/Lebanese/Syrian father, she has never been a stranger to multiculturalism or the conflicts it can generate. She believes that the first step toward harmonious coexistence is for each of us to figuratively "learn each other's dance moves." The real question, of course, wasn't what to wish for, but how to achieve it. For Noujaim, the answer again came easily: Cinema.

The result is Pangea Day, a film festival of sorts that will be globally simulcast on television ("My hope was to show it on Al-Jazeera and Fox at the same time," says Noujaim), mobile phones, the Internet, in theaters and at live outdoor screenings at places like the Great Pyramids of Egypt. As images increasingly become the primary means through which we perceive ourselves and others, Noujaim's wish might just, in hindsight, have grown into history's single biggest leap toward a humane global grammar of imagery.

Documentary spoke with Pangea Day's creator by phone to try to get a grip on this monumental undertaking.

D: So, two years ago you got your TED wish. What's changed in those two years? How has the wish evolved?

Jehane Noujaim: I asked the audience, "How would you use technology to have people stand in another person's shoes halfway across the world and increase understanding using film?" At the time we weren't sure what form that would take, and two years later there's quite a specific plan, which is that it's four hours of film, music and speakers creating a global campfire of storytelling--mostly film-broadcasted globally. And then we'll see people watching, and there will be opportunities for people to share their thoughts online with each other. The hope is that it will become an annual event that continues because of worldwide collaboration.

D: Can you give us a cross-section of what the event will look like?

JN: There's a screening being organized in Martyrs' Square in Beirut; there's a screening being organized in a Bedouin camp outside of Aman, Jordan; one in Cairo at the Pyramids; in a football stadium in the States; in the middle of Times Square. So, if you can imagine stories from these different parts of the world really trying to get the other side to understand where people are coming from--that's the idea.

We've been talking mainly about Pangea Day being about the idea that you can't hate people once you hear their stories, but the truth is you also can't hate somebody who listens to your stories. After September 11, we kept saying, "Why do they hate us?" But a lot of this is about being open to listen. Maybe nobody would hate us if we were open to listen.

D: You said once that being a documentary filmmaker was the best job in the world for you because it allows you to take on a new career with each film.

JN: Exactly. There's a quote I heard at TED: "If you want to go fast, do something alone. But if you want to go far, do it with collaboration." I see this a little bit with film--it's me and a couple other people guerilla filmmaking, but we have control of what every frame in that film is, and then we release it. There's been much more collaboration with this.

D: What kinds of collaboration have you been engaging in?

JN: I've been traveling to film festivals and film schools around the world talking to people about our call for entries, saying basically, "If you had a few minutes of the world's attention, what story would you tell?" Our partnership with Nokia has allowed us to send out over 1,000 Nokia cameras to different sides of conflict zones and film schools around the world--from an orphanage in Guatemala to a school in Rwanda where kids are making shorts about comedy to a film school in South Africa where kids are making shorts about love.

There will be a curated section where we've asked different directors from around the world to submit a short film or a part of their film. And there will also be user-generated content. As of this last week, we had over 1,500 films come in from 60 countries, and Participant Productions has offered a prize.

D: While the event's occurrence is kind of its own success, on the website you have lists of goals and intended results. Is there a means by which you'll be measuring those results to see how successful the event has been?

JN: We're working with the people who did Live Earth and Live Aid-Kevin Wall and Bob Geldof--and others, who are making up a list of what it means to measure the success: how many people are coming to it, how many people are connected...

But people are like, "So what's going to happen?" Obviously, world peace isn't going to happen on May 11. This isn't targeting a specific problem, but it is trying to shift things so that people are able to look at world problems in a different way.

IDA: But maybe there will at least be a new baby boom nine months down the line.

JN: [laughs] Hopefully there will be a lot of multicultural, multi-religious babies being born. I think that's sort of the wave of the future. I'm a little biased, of course, being the product of two very different backgrounds. But if somebody in Ethiopia feels a connection with somebody in Mexico, then this vision has been realized.

Also, on the day of the event, we're bringing in 100 filmmakers from around the world, and we're pairing them up with mentors. I can't even begin to describe the effect that making my first film with DA Pennebaker and Chris Hegedus had on my life. I learned everything from making a film with my mentors.

I just think the impact of something like Pangea Day occurs within people; it's hard to quantify it, but that doesn't mean that the goals haven't been met. There is something I would argue that is even more powerful to the intangible.

At TED, Forest Whitaker spoke about how the way he saw Uganda when he visited was completely different from the way he saw it on the news. He said that when you see the difference between how you see people on a television screen and how you see them when you actually meet them, you begin to look at everything differently. You question your stereotypes.

I saw that with Control Room. People would come up after a screening and say, "Now I'm going to question everything that I see." And that's what I hope that this leads to: a questioning of everything. Of course, when I was asked to make the "wish," the first thought I had was that people's most dire need is food and water, not to see movies. But I do believe that one leads to the other. I think that people need to be seen and heard on their own terms. Allowing people to tell their stories makes them human and gives a voice that will compel people who can provide those necessities.

I know, for instance, living between the Middle East and US, that there are funny human stories that are not being shared on both sides that could open up whole new worlds of dialogue, that could spark dialogue that hasn't existed before...That's the hope.

Pangea Day takes place pretty much everywhere on the planet on May 10. Check the website ( or your local listings for television, mobile phone and Internet broadcast information, as well as information about the many massive public screenings and 1,000 (and counting) hosted screenings around the world.

Taylor Segrest is a writer and filmmaker living in Los Angeles.