Interviews with Tim Hetherington Award Winners: Jehane Noujaim


Continuing our series of interviews we talk to Jehane Noujaim, winner of the Tim Hetherington Award at Sheffield Documentary Festival in 2013. Noujaim won the award for her gripping and passionate documentary, ‘The Square’ which chronicles the Egyptian protest movement from the 2011 overthrow of military leader Hosni Mubarak through the ousting of Mohammad Morsi. The documentary went on to be nominated for an Oscar and is currently streaming on Netflix.  Here Noujaim reflects on her own narrative as a film-maker and what she is currently working on.

Why did you decide to become a documentarian?

I realised the power of the image when I was about 16 or 17. I had been doing a lot of photography in Egypt in an environment where the community didn’t have access to cameras. I took pictures of weddings, birthdays, older grandparents that were going to pass away and families wanted to keep hold of a memory of them. Out of that grew this big photography project that I ended up showing at a conference on Operation Development initiated by the UN. I blew the images up to a life size scale and put them up on the walls at the conference. The next day after I put them up people came up to me and said, ‘Why are you showing these ugly sides of Cairo?’ I felt that people were completely missing the point, that they were not seeing these human beings in the photographs. They were calling me and saying as an Egyptian I should be ashamed to show these ugly sides of Egypt. By the fourth day all the images had been removed, and I remember feeling really rejected but at the same time I felt that I’d never seen images causing such debate. Some felt they needed to be taken down, some felt like the photographs showed a very true side to Egypt and I hadn’t even opened my mouth. So at that age I realised the power of what images could be.

When I went to college I realised I wanted these images to speak as well. So I took a film class at Harvard and continued to develop my interest until eventually, in 2001, I released my first documentary called ‘’. I was amazed at how audiences felt empathy for characters that were in the film. By the end of it, I felt like this is what I want to do with my life. Seeing, talking and meeting inspiring people that I would never normally get chance to meet would be such an exciting choice for how I wanted to pursue my future.  

How do you create strong images which you think are powerful but also allow other people to collaborate with you?

I think that documentary and film-making is one of the most exciting art forms because it is the most collaborative art making that there is. Where else do you gather a hundred people to produce one piece of work? It’s kind of amazing, and so it’s about being open and giving yourself leeway to make mistakes, to find the beauty in them. ‘The Square’ was a very collaborative project, put together with people who were putting their life on the line to create these shots. We each brought something different to the table, resulting in a compelling film being made.

Which part of the process do you personally prefer? 

I love all stages of the process, especially when you’re collaborating with people that you admire and that you trust. That has certainly been the case of all the films I have worked on. The process is exciting where the ideas are flowing and where there’s a lot of safety to make mistakes, to try things out and colour outside the lines. That’s where you get exciting results.

Do you have a different perspective now on the documentaries you have made in the past?

It takes me about a year or two to look back at a film and not think I should move this scene or put something else here, but it can be great fun looking back at the work. After a couple of years of it being finished you are actually able to see the film as an audience member, which I don’t think you can do as soon as it is completed. It’s difficult to see it with fresh eyes because you’ve been staring at it for a year or two. So I do love looking back at the films, but I like to let a bit of time pass.


When you create a documentary do you feel like you’re part of a community, like your part of something bigger?

You do because you meet a lot of likeminded people who have all agreed to embark on these journeys where you have to be a little bit crazy to embark on them. Where you’re not sure if you’ll get funded, you’re not sure where the story is going to lead, but you have a hunch and you are following your gut.

How do you see your work developing in a world which is rapidly evolving digitally?

With the films that I have made there is a lot of outtakes. Recently I have been sorting through my storage and labelling boxes of tapes, with hours of footage on them which never get seen. The digital services which show documentary over a series of episodes really allows you to delve deeply into the stories, which is quite an exciting turn.

What projects are you currently working on?

I’m working on a couple of things, one of them focusing on ISIS. We don’t really hear any stories about people that are trying to fight against it. We have been researching mothers who have children that have been recruited by ISIS and have focused on what their reaction has been and what they’re doing to combat this kind of messaging. It raises emotions of anger and guilt and yet at the same time the reality is that this is still their child that has been recruited. It raises all these questions about parenthood, which I have all the time being a recent mother. These women are often in a very tough, lonely position because they are then ostracized by their communities. My husband who is very involved with the project is Muslim and he is seeing the situation as somebody who feels that his faith is being hijacked, so it’s a very personal story for him as well.

When you’re dealing with the weight of the subject, how do you present it? Do you look at it through the narrative or do you think of it in visual terms?

I think it’s a combination. You’re telling a story, you’re figuring out how to tell a story visually but it’s extremely important that there is a compelling narrative that has charismatic, fascinating human beings behind it that we’re interested in following. There has to be a narrative, a story that is going to inspire and be entertaining. After that, you try to get people to start thinking about the ideas behind it. The images that you make in telling the story are all part of creating this narrative that is visually compelling to watch. And I think that is something that Tim Hetherington was brilliant at doing in being such an incredible story teller narratively but also visually.

Interviews with Tim Hetherington Award Winners: Jehane Noujaim