In 1992, after working for nine years as a journalist, Jihan El-Tahri realized she could remember the people and places she wrote about more than the content, and decided to become a doc-maker. Once she watched Brook Lapping Productions’ The Death of Yugoslavia, El-Tahri made it her mission to work with the prodco, and eventually secured a job there. For a year-and-a-half, she even made the commute from her home in Paris to the London office.
In 1997, El-Tahri worked with Yugoslavia series producer Norma Percy on The 50 Years War: Israel and the Arabs, and has since written and directed several of her own docs, including the International Emmy-nominated The House of Saud. She is currently filming two projects: Behind the Rainbow, about a presidential campaign in South Africa, and Requiem for Revolution (w/t), about Cuban military support for revolutions in Africa. Almost 10 years later, El-Tahri says she’s still using the lessons her mentor, Percy, taught her.
‘She’s very tough and strict about every detail. I learned from Norma that detail is the essence of the bigger picture. When we were doing the interview with King Hussein for Israel and the Arabs, she kept hammering him on the fine details. She would ask, ‘What did the room look like? Where were you sitting? Were you looking at them?’ I kept thinking, Gosh, knock it off. That detail isn’t necessary. But by the time she had finished, he had reconstructed the place in his own mind, and the stories started flowing.
‘She also taught me that preparation is 80% of a film. Her motto is, and I still use it today myself: ‘When you interview someone, you have to know more about him than he knows about himself.’ It’s really amazing how people open up when you do. On another film I did, called The Tragedy of the Great Lakes, I interviewed the president of Uganda and he said, ‘I never said this’ and ‘I never said that.’ And I said, ‘Yes you did. In the late ’60s, in a meeting at Makrere University, you said this.’ He just sat there gob smacked. Then he said, ‘You’re probably right.’ It completely changes the style of the interview because people see you’ve made the effort. The interview is transformed from being an interview to a conversation.’