10+ Questions with filmmaker Jihan el-Tahri


Jihan El-Tahri was born in Beirut, Lebanon. She is a writer, director and producer of documentary films.

Q: What inspired you to make this series ‘Egypt’s Modern Pharaohs’?

A: I didn’t want to make any films on Egypt. I’ve made films all over the world and all over Africa. But I’d never touched Egypt because in 1992 I had some serious political problems which meant it would be hard going back.

Then there was the 2011 revolt. I went back two days after Mubarak fell, but still I had no plans to do anything. But it really felt like a new place; it had all this energy, there was so much hope for everything. And in the midst of all this jubilation and hope, with everybody in the square, people were selling these black and white photos. They were of the president before Nasser; I’d never seen them, I didn’t know who the guy [Naguib] was. So it was all very confusing and I thought it was very interesting that amongst the things on sale in Tahrir Square – there was tea, decorations, Egyptian flags and these photos. As I was looking through some of these I saw one from 1951 which was a demonstration in Tahrir also and what really caught my attention were the placards they were carrying, they said ‘Bread, Freedom, Social Justice’ and that is what the people had been singing and chanting at Tahrir. The people chanting in the same place the same slogans as they were under British colonialism 60years ago and so that was what pushed me to try and figure out the trajectory of what had happened and what made that revolution inevitable.

Q: Did you start with Nasser or decide what were the similarities and build the film from there?

A: It became the three presidents much later. The narrative was more thematic, using key turning points that made the revolt inevitable, so it was more events and people. My first cut was something like seven and half hours so I said ok we are going to have to do this differently.

Q: Why choose the presidents you did?

A: I did about a year and half of research, just research and for me it was obvious there were parallels. It felt a bit like Gabriel García Márquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude. And I guess for me what was very very clear was this parallel, just when Mubarak fell and there was the moment of transition with the army taking over and it was ummm we know about this.

Q: Are there particular pharaohs the modern leaders of Egypt replicate or is it just the style?

A: It is not about any one [pharaoh] in particular, it was about the reign of the pharaohs. I was trying to look into the system

Q: You talk of a particular style of leadership in Egypt – do you think the mould can be broken?

A: I am not talking about style of leadership I am talking about the system through which people govern and each one of them had his style but at the end of the day the governing system eats up the whole thing. Where we are today after four years of upheaval is because the system was still anchored; it was still there. It was not about the style of governing, it was about a vision of each president – how he thought he would make Egypt regain its ancient glory.

I think it [the mould] can be [broken]. Being able to govern alone without the headache of parliaments telling you no and opposition telling you no, you can call it autocracy if you want, so the regime functions on the basis of cutting off the political middle ground – the liberal opposition. You always have the scare tactic of ‘if it’s not me, it’s them’ and you make people afraid or scared of ‘them’. But if you have a middle ground, if you have democratic parties, liberal parties that were allowed to thrive then there would be competition. But what has happened is that you decapitate liberal opposition. Who is in prison today in Egypt? Along with the Brotherhood you have the bloggers and even a lady who wrote a post on her Facebook page and got three years in prison. You decapitate any voice that threatens to attract people to an alternative.

Q: Will there be an end?

A: Let me get my crystal ball, but I don’t know. One of the interesting things is how the fear of Islamic rule just consolidates military power and vice versa – the fear of military power increases Islamic rule. It’s a vicious circle.

Q: What were the challenges in making the films?

A: I survived three revolutions while making these films. Every time I went to shoot the whole reality of what I was dealing with was completely different. It was like a hole in the ground would open under my film every single time I went on a shoot, so it was starting from scratch each and every time. And so for the first time I went all the people I could interview were the people in the square, all the liberals if you want and all the Mubarak people had gone to prison. And then slowly with the second shoot the Muslim Brotherhood were gaining ground so they were starting to speak and then the Mubarak people came out of prison. So it seemed every time one group started speaking the others were silenced. I was always trying to figure out, politically who can speak now? I would do all my research, agree an appointment then I’d come back and the guy’s in prison. So you leave and come back and he comes out and then other guy you are meant to interview is in prison. It was musical chairs of people I needed being in prison…not them physically but when the group is attacked no one speaks so I was affected by the political climate.

Also shooting in the street, this was quite easy in the first few days of the revolution because of all the euphoria and openness and then suddenly you couldn’t do a thing. You couldn’t pull out a camera on the street, you needed a permit. Let me give you an example, I finally got a permit to shoot in the streets of Cairo which took me forever and cost me a lot of money, I went to shoot and I got arrested. But I was really happy and I was saying no no it’s alright I’ve got a permit. But they looked at it and they said it needs to say which street so I went back and got the street. So when I got arrested again I pulled the permit out and said I have the street and he [police officer] yes but it needs to say the buildings. So obviously they just did not want me to shoot.

Q: How long did it take you to make the film?

A: Five years, I literally started about a week after Mubarak fell.

Q: Which out of the three did the best/ worst job, having studied them?

A: That was one of the surprising things for me. Coming from my rebellious background, I really thought I was going criticise all of them; in my head there was nothing to understand. And I was really surprised to find through the research, to suddenly understand that each one of them really had a vision and really worked hard to implement it. We can judge it as wrong but at the end of the day the aim of each one of them was to try to pull Egypt out of under development and into modernity. Obviously Mubarak becomes the problem because Mubarak reigned for 30years, but looking at the first decade Mubarak was a good president, he really tried. Becoming a Pharaoh has very much to do with your entourage; you stop listening to the street and you stop thinking that other people’s opinions or plight matters but most of all your entourage stop telling you what’s happening, they just give you the good news. So I’m pretty sure that someone like Mubarak was really surprised that the whole population was out there saying get out.

Q: Do you think life would have been different under President Naguib, had he remained in power?

A: It is easy to see life through rose tinted glasses, so I think Egypt would have been quite a different place. I get quite a bit of nostalgia for the kind of images we see of the 1950s. We had vibrant parliamentary system until 1951, we had political parties that had fought through a parliamentary system for independence; we had vocal opposition leaders. There were two main big parties that were vying for power and it really was about the people. But of course we under occupation, so can you talk about real democracy under occupation? But they vied for the vote of the people and between 1950 and 1951 five different governments fell because there were was a vote of no confidence. So I think Naguib because of his age come out of this condition of democracy and the revolution and the transitional period was about writing a proper constitution that would give the people more power and was about ending British rule and giving the citizens of Egypt a space. But since Naguib was ousted Egypt’s population from there on has never been part of the equation.

Q: Why did so many people see Nasser as a hero when evidence suggests the opposite?

A: I tried to show or capture the complexities of Nasser. At the end of the film you see a woman who says she was on the phone criticising the oppression, and she got another call from her brother saying Nasser was dead. She said she just dropped the phone and that she never mourned anyone like she mourned Nasser not even her father or mother. So it’s this complexity I was trying to show. Another example at a screening of the film a communist guy who had spent ages in Nasser’s prisons was quite upset afterward, he said yes it was all true but I hadn’t shown what a hero he was. I said excuse me you were the one that was in his prison and he said yes I was and yes he tortured me but he was a true Egyptian. People hate Nasser and love Nasser because Nasser really really tried to turn the country around. Nasser gave the small people, at least until 1967, rights and land and education. So Egyptians love Nasser but recognise where we are at today is because of Nasser. It’s very complex sentiments.

My film is not a biography of all three. My film is about the trajectory that made revolution, the 2011 revolt, inevitable, the infrastructure that each of them laid that has made Egypt what it is today. All Nasser’s grand achievements were not part of what I was looking at. I am a big Africanist I believe in Egypt as part of the African continent and Nasser was one of the fathers of pan-Africanism. I can make three films about that and it could be all about glory. My choice was for once to be looking at Egypt internally. Every single film you find about Egypt looks it either through the perspective of the wars, the Arab –Israeli conflict, or from the perspective of the Arab countries – Egypt as part of the Arab world, or from the perspective of the peace treaties. So when the revolution happened no one really understood what was going on internally because the reading of the situation no longer worked. You couldn’t read the revolution through an Arab Israeli perspective or through the peace treaties; they had nothing to do with it. It was internal Egyptian politics, which nobody had looked at.