Jehane Noujaim is visiting Pacific Lutheran University Thursday, Feb. 19, to screen her Academy Award-nominated film, “The Square,” at 5 p.m. in the Karen Hille Phillips Center. She will also deliver the second Ambassador Chris Stevens Memorial Lecture directly after at 7:30 p.m. Noujaim exclusively spoke with The Mooring Mast to talk about her film, filmmaking and her vocation as a filmmaker. –Matthew Salzano
When students leave after viewing “The Square” and listening to your lecture, what do you want them to do?
If The Square could stand for anything, it’s this idea that if you bring someone to power — Bush, Obama, whoever is next in 2016 — you have keep challenging them and holding power accountable. The work isn’t done once all the votes are in.
When you are struck with an idea for a film, what is your next step?
I am usually struck with an idea for a film when I meet a person or am confronted with a situation that surprises me, inspires me, or makes me question my way of thinking. The next step is research. Not always glamorous, but digging deeper into the story.
[My team and I] start reading news articles, figuring out key players, starting conversations with them and with colleagues we may want to work with on a project. We see which characters might be able to carry the story — people that will lead us through the story we want to tell.
What is your advice to aspiring filmmakers?
Don’t ask for permission to pick up a camera. If a story moves you, find the characters that will help guide you through the story and find out if you can spend some time with them. I also advise finding a mentor, a filmmaker that you admire, and try to spend a year working with them, or interning for them — it is the best way to learn.
Was your 2014 Academy Award nomination your greatest achievement?
The Academy Award? Oh no, definitely not. It was a wonderful honor, but the film and the collaboration of filmmakers that made the film was the achievement. You never make films for the awards, that is a recipe for disaster and depression. Some of the best films made in the world have never been recognized by the Academy. So yes, I think of it as an honor — not an achievement. There are a couple of stories that I am working on now that I am very excited about, but if The Square ends up being what I’m most remembered for, that is not too bad!
PLU is passionate about helping students determine their “vocation,” their calling in life, the role in their community — how would you define yours, and how did you realize it?
I am a storyteller and I use film to tell those stories. I think it is my role to reflect back the world that we are living in that I see around me and to communicate the sparks of hope and the miracle I see in human nature.
[M]y mom took me to the garbage-collecting village in Egypt when I was about 16. She decided it was something I needed to see, so I went there and met some amazing people. There was a center for teaching and I ended up teaching English. There, I met people that lived seven to a room, could barely afford their meals, yet lived with a strength of spirit and sense of humor that was difficult to understand sometimes, given their difficult circumstances.
I was drawn into this community and started taking pictures. I took pictures at weddings and of older family members — memories of events and people that they were not able to preserve for themselves.
When I was 18, the UN Conference on Population and Development asked me to show some of these photographs in Cairo. So I was very excited, it was my first exhibit and all these photos were up large — life size.
After about two days, they were all taken down except for three of them.
Some of the people organizing the conference were so upset and angry with me, for showing these very dirty sides to Cairo. I got so depressed, looking at this empty wall and thinking, “I failed at this.”
…[T]hen I started thinking about the intense emotion that had come out of people from just seeing those pictures. Here I was, just a teenage nobody with no voice, but all of a sudden I put up these photos and people were arguing and having conversations they never would have had — I had begun a debate without opening my mouth. I saw how powerful an image can be.
[Photography and Filmmaking] allows you to transport people to places they never would have ordinarily gone. You can give people the experience of seeing the human spirit thriving in adverse conditions — which is incredibly inspiring.
You can show a film, allow a person to step in another’s shoes and consider a point of view they had never thought about before.
That is a powerful, beautiful thing. This is why I became a filmmaker.