Jehane Noujaim

My wish: A global day of film

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I can't help but this wish: to think about when you're a little kid, and all your friends ask you, "If a genie could give you one wish in the world, what would it be?" And I always answered, "Well, I'd want the wish to have the wisdom to know exactly what to wish for." Well, then you'd be screwed, because you'd know what to wish for, and you'd use up your wish, and now, since we only have one wish — unlike last year they had three wishes — I'm not going to wish for that.


So let's get to what I would like, which is world peace. And I know what you're thinking: You're thinking, "The poor girl up there, she thinks she's at a beauty pageant. She's not. She's at the TED Prize." (Laughter) But I really do think it makes sense. And I think that the first step to world peace is for people to meet each other. I've met a lot of different people over the years, and I've filmed some of them, from a dotcom executive in New York who wanted to take over the world, to a military press officer in Qatar, who would rather not take over the world. If you've seen the film "Control Room" that was sent out, you'd understand a little bit why. (Applause) Thank you. Wow! Some of you watched it. That's great. That's great.


So basically what I'd like to talk about today is a way for people to travel, to meet people in a different way than — because you can't travel all over the world at the same time. And a long time ago — well, about 40 years ago — my mom had an exchange student. And I'm going to show you slides of the exchange student. This is Donna. This is Donna at the Statue of Liberty. This is my mother and aunt teaching Donna how to ride a bike. This is Donna eating ice cream. And this is Donna teaching my aunt how to do a Filipino dance. I really think as the world is getting smaller, it becomes more and more important that we learn each other's dance moves, that we meet each other, we get to know each other, we are able to figure out a way to cross borders, to understand each other, to understand people's hopes and dreams, what makes them laugh and cry. And I know that we can't all do exchange programs, and I can't force everybody to travel; I've already talked about that to Chris and Amy, and they said that there's a problem with this: You can't force people, free will. And I totally support that, so we're not forcing people to travel. But I'd like to talk about another way to travel that doesn't require a ship or an airplane, and just requires a movie camera, a projector and a screen. And that's what I'm going to talk to you about today.


I was asked that I speak a little bit about where I personally come from, and Cameron, I don't know how you managed to get out of that one, but I think that building bridges is important to me because of where I come from. I'm the daughter of an American mother and an Egyptian-Lebanese-Syrian father. So I'm the living product of two cultures coming together. No pun intended. (Laughter) And I've also been called, as an Egyptian-Lebanese-Syrian American with a Persian name, the "Middle East Peace Crisis."


So maybe me starting to take pictures was some kind of way to bring both sides of my family together — a way to take the worlds with me, a way to tell stories visually. It all kind of started that way, but I think that I really realized the power of the image when I first went to the garbage-collecting village in Egypt, when I was about 16. My mother took me there. She's somebody who believes strongly in community service, and decided that this was something that I needed to do. And so I went there and I met some amazing women there. There was a center there, where they were teaching people how to read and write, and get vaccinations against the many diseases you can get from sorting through garbage. And I began teaching there. I taught English, and I met some incredible women there. I met people that live seven people to a room, barely can afford their evening meal, yet lived with this strength of spirit and sense of humor and just incredible qualities.


I got drawn into this community and I began to take pictures there. I took pictures of weddings and older family members — things that they wanted memories of. About two years after I started taking these pictures, the UN Conference on Population and Development asked me to show them at the conference. So I was 18; I was very excited. It was my first exhibit of photographs and they were all put up there, and after about two days, they all came down except for three. People were very upset, very angry that I was showing these dirty sides of Cairo, and why didn't I cut the dead donkey out of the frame? And as I sat there, I got very depressed. I looked at this big empty wall with three lonely photographs that were, you know, very pretty photographs and I was like, "I failed at this." But I was looking at this intense emotion and intense feeling that had come out of people just seeing these photographs. Here I was, this 18-year-old pipsqueak that nobody listened to, and all of a sudden, I put these photographs on the wall, and there were arguments, and they had to be taken down. And I saw the power of the image, and it was incredible. And I think the most important reaction that I saw there was actually from people that would never have gone to the garbage village themselves, that would never have seen that the human spirit could thrive in such difficult circumstances. And I think it was at that point that I decided I wanted to use photography and film to somehow bridge gaps, to bridge cultures, bring people together, cross borders. And so that's what really kind of started me off.


Did a stint at MTV, made a film called "," and I've done a couple of music films. But in 2003, when the war in Iraq was about to start, it was a very surreal feeling for me, because before the war started, there was kind of this media war that was going on. And I was watching television in New York, and there seemed to be just one point of view that was coming across, and the coverage went from the US State Department to embedded troops. And what was coming across on the news was that there was going to be this clean war and precision bombings, and the Iraqis would be greeting the Americans as liberators, and throwing flowers at their feet in the streets of Baghdad. And I knew that there was a completely other story that was taking place in the Middle East, where my parents were. I knew that there was a completely other story being told, and I was thinking, "How are people supposed to communicate with each other when they're getting completely different messages, and nobody knows what the other's being told? How are people supposed to have any kind of common understanding or know how to move together into the future? So I knew that I had to go there. I just wanted to be in the center. I had no plan. I had no funding. I didn't even have a camera at the time — I had somebody bring it there, because I wanted to get access to Al Jazeera, George Bush's favorite channel, and a place which I was very curious about because it's disliked by many governments across the Arab world, and also called the mouthpiece of Osama Bin Laden by some people in the US government.


So I was thinking, this station that's hated by so many people has to be doing something right. I've got to go see what this is all about. And I also wanted to go see Central Command, which was 10 minutes away. And that way, I could get access to how this news was being created — on the Arab side, reaching the Arab world, and on the US and Western side, reaching the US.


And when I went there and sat there, and met these people that were in the center of it, and sat with these characters, I met some surprising, very complex people. And I'd like to share with you a little bit of that experience of when you sit with somebody and you film them, and you listen to them, and you allow them more than a five-second sound bite. The amazing complexity of people emerges.


Samir Khader: Business as usual. Iraq, and then Iraq, and then Iraq. But between us, if I'm offered a job with Fox, I'll take it. To change the Arab nightmare into the American dream. I still have that dream. Maybe I will never be able to do it, but I have plans for my children. When they finish high school, I will send them to America to study there. I will pay for their study. And they will stay there. Josh Rushing: The night they showed the POWs and the dead soldiers — Al Jazeera showed them — it was powerful, because America doesn't show those kinds of images. Most of the news in America won't show really gory images and this showed American soldiers in uniform, strewn about a floor, a cold tile floor. And it was revolting. It was absolutely revolting. It made me sick at my stomach. And then what hit me was, the night before, there had been some kind of bombing in Basra, and Al Jazeera had shown images of the people. And they were equally, if not more, horrifying — the images were. And I remember having seen it in the Al Jazeera office, and thought to myself, "Wow, that's gross. That's bad." And then going away, and probably eating dinner or something. And it didn't affect me as much. So, the impact that had on me — me realizing that I just saw people on the other side, and those people in the Al Jazeera office must have felt the way I was feeling that night, and it upset me on a profound level that I wasn't as bothered as much the night before. It makes me hate war. But it doesn't make me believe that we're in a world that can live without war yet.


Jehane Noujaim: I was overwhelmed by the response of the film. We didn't know whether it would be able to get out there. We had no funding for it. We were incredibly lucky that it got picked up. And when we showed the film in both the United States and the Arab world, we had such incredible reactions. It was amazing to see how people were moved by this film. In the Arab world — and it's not really by the film, it's by the characters — I mean, Josh Rushing was this incredibly complex person who was thinking about things. And when I showed the film in the Middle East, people wanted to meet Josh. He kind of redefined us as an American population. People started to ask me, "Where is this guy now?" Al Jazeera offered him a job. (Laughter) And Samir, on the other hand, was also quite an interesting character for the Arab world to see, because it brought out the complexities of this love-hate relationship that the Arab world has with the West.


In the United States, I was blown away by the motivations, the positive motivations of the American people when they'd see this film. You know, we're criticized abroad for believing we're the saviors of the world in some way, but the flip side of it is that, actually, when people do see what is happening abroad and people's reactions to some of our policy abroad, we feel this power, that we need to — we feel like we have to get the power to change things. And I saw this with audiences. This woman came up to me after the screening and said, "You know, I know this is crazy. I saw the bombs being loaded on the planes, I saw the military going out to war, but you don't understand people's anger towards us until you see the people in the hospitals and the victims of the war, and how do we get out of this bubble?


How do we understand what the other person is thinking?" Now, I don't know whether a film can change the world. But I know the power of it, I know that it starts people thinking about how to change the world.


Now, I'm not a philosopher, so I feel like I shouldn't go into great depth on this, but let film speak for itself and take you to this other world. Because I believe that film has the ability to take you across borders, I'd like you to just sit back and experience for a couple of minutes being taken into another world. And these couple clips take you inside of two of the most difficult conflicts that we're faced with today. [The last 48 hours of two Palestinian suicide bombers.] [Paradise Now]


[Man: As long as there is injustice, someone must make a sacrifice!]


[Woman: That's no sacrifice, that's revenge!] [If you kill, there's no difference between victim and occupier.]


[Man: If we had airplanes, we wouldn't need martyrs, that's the difference.]


[Woman: The difference is that the Israeli military is still stronger.]


[Man: Then let us be equal in death.] [We still have Paradise.]


[Woman: There is no Paradise! It only exists in your head!]


[Man: God forbid!] [May God forgive you.] [If you were not Abu Azzam's daughter ...] [Anyway, I'd rather have Paradise in my head than live in this hell!] [In this life, we're dead anyway.]


[One only chooses bitterness when the alternative is even bitterer.]


[Woman: And what about us? The ones who remain?] [Will we win that way?] [Don't you see what you're doing is destroying us?] [And that you give Israel an alibi to carry on?]


[Man: So with no alibi, Israel will stop?]


[Woman: Perhaps. We have to turn it into a moral war.]


[Man: How, if Israel has no morals?]


[Woman: Be careful!] [And the real people building peace through non-violence] [Encounter Point] Video: (Ambulance siren) [Tel Aviv, Israel 1996]


[Tzvika: My wife Ayelet called me and said, ] ["There was a suicide bombing in Tel Aviv."]


[Ayelet: What do you know about the casualties?] [Tzvika off-screen: We're looking for three girls.]


[We have no information.]


[Ayelet: One is wounded here, but we haven't heard from the other three.]


[Tzvika: I said, "OK, that's Bat-Chen, that's my daughter.] [Are you sure she is dead?"] [They said yes.] Video: (Police siren and shouting over megaphone) [Bethlehem, Occupied Palestinian Territories, 2003]


[George: On that day, at around 6:30] [I was driving with my wife and daughters to the supermarket.] [When we got to here ...] [we saw three Israeli military jeeps parked on the side of the road.] [When we passed by the first jeep ...] [they opened fire on us.] [And my 12-year-old daughter Christine] [was killed in the shooting.] [Bereaved Families Forum, Jerusalem]


[Tzvika: I'm the headmaster for all parts.]


[George: But there is a teacher that is in charge?] [Tzvika: Yes, I have assistants.] [I deal with children all the time.] [One year after their daughters' deaths both Tzvika and George join the forum]


[George: At first, I thought it was a strange idea.] [But after thinking logically about it, ] [I didn't find any reason why not to meet them] [and let them know of our suffering.]


[Tzvika: There were many things that touched me.] [We see that there are Palestinians who suffered a lot, who lost children,] [and still believe in the peace process and in reconciliation.] [If we who lost what is most precious can talk to each other,] [and look forward to a better future,] [then everyone else must do so, too.] [From South Africa: A Revolution Through Music] [Amandla] (Music)


(Video) Man: Song is something that we communicated with people who otherwise would not have understood where we're coming from. You could give them a long political speech, they would still not understand. But I tell you, when you finish that song, people will be like, "Damn, I know where you niggas are coming from. I know where you guys are coming from. Death unto apartheid!"


Narrator: It's about the liberation struggle. It's about those children who took to the streets — fighting, screaming, "Free Nelson Mandela!" It's about those unions who put down their tools and demanded freedom. Yes. Yes! (Music and singing) (Singing) Freedom! (Applause)


Jehane Noujaim: I think everybody's had that feeling of sitting in a theater, in a dark room, with other strangers, watching a very powerful film, and they felt that feeling of transformation. And what I'd like to talk about is how can we use that feeling to actually create a movement through film? I've been listening to the talks in the conference, and Robert Wright said yesterday that if we have an appreciation for another person's humanity, then they will have an appreciation for ours. And that's what this is about. It's about connecting people through film, getting these independent voices out there. Now, Josh Rushing actually ended up leaving the military and taking a job with Al Jazeera. (Laughter) So his feeling is that he's at Al Jazeera International because he feels like he can actually use media to bridge the gap between East and West. And that's an amazing thing. But I've been trying to think about ways to give power to these independent voices, to give power to the filmmakers, to give power to people who are trying to use film for change. And there are incredible organizations that are out there doing this already. There's Witness, that you heard from earlier. There's Just Vision, that are working with Palestinians and Israelis who are working together for peace, and documenting that process and getting interviews out there and using this film to take to Congress to show that it's a powerful tool, to show that this is a woman who's had her daughter killed in an attack, and she believes that there are peaceful ways to solve this. There's Working Films and there's Current TV, which is an incredible platform for people around the world to be able to put their — (Applause) Yeah, it's amazing. I've watched it and I'm blown away by it and its potential to bring voices from around the world — independent voices from around the world — and create a truly democratic, global television.


So what can we do to create a platform for these organizations, to create some momentum, to get everybody in the world involved in this movement? I'd like for us to imagine for a second. Imagine a day when you have everyone coming together from around the world. You have towns and villages and theaters — all from around the world, getting together, and sitting in the dark, and sharing a communal experience of watching a film, or a couple of films, together. Watching a film which maybe highlights a character that is fighting to live, or just a character that defies stereotypes, makes a joke, sings a song. Comedies, documentaries, shorts. This amazing power can be used to change people and to bond people together; to cross borders, and have people feel like they're having a communal experience. So if you imagine this day when all around the world, you have theaters and places where we project films. If you imagine projecting from Times Square to Tahrir Square in Cairo, the same film in Ramallah, the same film in Jerusalem. You know, we've been talking to a friend of mine about using the side of the Great Pyramid and the Great Wall of China. It's endless what you can imagine, in terms of where you can project films and where you can have this communal experience. And I believe that this one day, if we can create it, this one day can create momentum for all of these independent voices. There isn't an organization which is connecting the independent voices of the world to get out there, and yet I'm hearing throughout this conference that the biggest challenge in our future is understanding the other, and having mutual respect for the other and crossing borders. And if film can do that, and if we can get all of these different locations in the world to watch these films together — this could be an incredible day.


So we've already made a partnership, set up through somebody from the TED community, John Camen, who introduced me to Steven Apkon, from the Jacob Burns Film Center. And we started calling up everybody. And in the last week, there have been so many people that have responded to us, from as close as Palo Alto, to Mongolia and to India. There are people that want to be a part of this global day of film; to be able to provide a platform for independent voices and independent films to get out there. Now, we've thought about a name for this day, and I'd like to share this with you. Now, the most amazing part of this whole process has been sharing ideas and wishes, and so I invite you to give brainstorms onto how does this day echo into the future? How do we use technology to make this day echo into the future, so that we can build community and have these communities working together, through the Internet? There was a time, many, many years ago, when all of the continents were stuck together. And we call that landmass Pangea. So what we'd like to call this day of film is Pangea Cinema Day. And if you just imagine that all of these people in these towns would be watching, then I think that we can actually really make a movement towards people understanding each other better.


I know that it's very intangible, touching people's hearts and souls, but the only way that I know how to do it, the only way that I know how to reach out to somebody's heart and soul all across the world, is by showing them a film. And I know that there are independent filmmakers and films out there that can really make this happen. And that's my wish. I guess I'm supposed to give you my one-sentence wish, but we're way out of time.


Chris Anderson: That is an incredible wish. Pangea Cinema: The day the world comes together.


JN: It's more tangible than world peace, and it's certainly more immediate. But it would be the day that the world comes together through film, the power of film.


CA: Ladies and gentlemen, Jehane Noujaim.

Jehane Noujaim unveils her 2006 TED Prize wish: to bring the world together for one day a year through the power of film.

About the speaker
Jehane Noujaim · Filmmaker

TED Prize winner Jehane Noujaim is a gutsy filmmaker whose astonishing documentaries reveal the triumphs and hardships of courageous individuals.

TED Prize winner Jehane Noujaim is a gutsy filmmaker whose astonishing documentaries reveal the triumphs and hardships of courageous individuals.