Filmmaker Dreams of 'Pangea Day'

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Two years ago, documentary filmmaker Jehane Noujaim won $100,000 from the TED Conference — the acronym stands for Technology, Entertainment, Design awards — to fund her wish for a better world. Noujaim wished for a global film festival. It's slated for May 10.

ALISON STEWART, host:

So if the whole world were watching, what story would you tell? That's a question that documentary filmmaker Jehane Noujaim wants you to answer.

We know what stories that she likes to tell. She directed the documentary film "Startup.com" and "Control Room." That one was about Al Jazeera. So it makes some sense that two years ago when Jehane won something called the TED Prize, she received not only a hundred thousand bucks, she was awarded one wish -literally. She could wish for anything and they tried to make it come true. Her wish was for a global film festival.

Now you might be wondering who is this TED guy, and will he give me a prize? TED's not a guy. TED's an acronym for the invite-only conference about technology, entertainment and design. We'll get to know more about TED in just a minute.

First, Jehane's wish: to bring the whole world together for one day through the medium of film. The wish will come true this May. It's being called Pangea Day. When I spoke to Jehane and TED curator Chris Anderson earlier, I asked her why the name Pangea.

Ms. JEHANE NOUJAIM (Filmmaker; Winner, TED Prize): Pangea is the name of the super continent 250 million years ago. The world was one continent, and all the continents were connected before we split apart and before there was the drift. And so Pangea Day is the day were we're hoping that film brings people closer together, where people are able to stand in another person's shoes, see a film about somebody's life and a life and a story that they may not have heard before. And so that's where we're seeing Pangea Day, as an effort to move towards peace and understanding. And that really happens through conversation and storytelling.

So our deadline for submission is actually coming up. We've been asking people all around the world, film schools and filmmakers, film festivals to send a callout for entries asking, if you had a few minutes of the world's attention, what story would you tell? And the deadline for submission's now is February 15th, so less than a month away. We're getting some exciting stuff then.

STEWART: From what I understand, it's a little more than just a film festival. It's got a little bit of an extravaganza element to it. Explain to people what's actually going to happen on May 10th, Pangea Day.

Ms. NOUJAIM: So on May 10th, we're having a four-hour program of music and speeches and film interspersed. And…

STEWART: Where will this be?

Ms. NOUJAIM: Everywhere.

STEWART: Okay.

Ms. NOUJAIM: So you can go to PangeaDay.org.

STEWART: I'll experience it through the Internet, then.

Ms. NOUJAIM: You can - you'll experience it through the Internet, through broadcasters and projected live in theaters and seen in bars around the world. So we're creating a meet-up for the world. So if you go to PangeaDay.org, you can sign on to host a screening. And it can be a public screening or a private screening.

The idea is really to get as many different places around the world signed up to host. So we have people hosting a screening in a Bedouin camp outside Jordan to a football stadium in the States to private homes, and people will be tuning in.

STEWART: When you realized that you were going to be able to make this wish -wish is such a great word, because it's got sort of magical quality. It's just not like a request or an idea I had and I wish. What is it about your personal background that made a global film festival your wish?

Ms. NOUJAIM: I grew up between Cairo and the U.S., so I grew up with an American mother and an Egyptian-Syrian-Lebanese father who were always had a challenge, maybe at communicating with each other as I was growing up. So, you know, maybe I'm still trying to fix this gap of understanding. But, in all seriousness, I think that - in the last, you know, six years or so, there's been an increase in dehumanization of the different sides between the Arab world, Arab Muslim world and the U.S. And it's an attempt to put the humanity back into people's view of the other.

Because we are interconnected, the world is getting smaller. And so how do you give hope back to people that the other people on the other side of the world or the people that you could be related to or that you want to work things out with? And so that's where this has really come from, because film has the power to do that. When you see a film and you're in a dark room and you're literally, you feel like you're in somebody else's life and in their head, and it's one of the most powerful mediums to be able to do that.

And that's what I've seen with films that, you know, are from all places of the world. You have a very intimate understanding of a person when you've seen a film about them, and that can spark different ways of seeing the world, different ways of seeing people. And so that's what we're trying to do.

STEWART: Can you give me a concrete example from work that you've done where someone has seen it, experienced it and it's actually made a tangible change in the way they do their job or they interact with another person, rather than seeing a film and understanding it and sort of thinking about it and talking about it in a coffee shop?

Ms. NOUJAIM: Yeah. I don't think that seeing film - I don't think that when you watch a film, you can tangibly measure the results of the effect that it has had on somebody. But I do think that its sets off sparks and different ideas about people and situations, and those people then influence others.

A concrete example - there are concrete examples though, and I've seen it in my own work. When I made "Control Room," I filmed a couple of Al Jazeera reporters and NBC reporters, CNN and a U.S. military press officer, who was there to give the party line on the U.S.'s role in Iraq. And his main job was to talk to all of the Arab journalists.

As he spoke to them, I think, he started to get different perspectives and understanding of what was happening. And at one point, he had - saw some images of U.S. soldiers who had been killed, and he described the feeling, sick his stomach, being unable to eat, how it did very - it was a very difficult experience.

And then he realized that he had seen Iraqi civilians who had been killed, taken to the hospital, and realized that he didn't have that same intensity of feeling, and that really bothered him. We filmed him describing that. And showing that empathy to an Arab audience, it wasn't as if after the Arab audience had seen it they wanted to his best friend, but there was a curiosity about him. They wanted to have a conversation with him. And this is at a time in Egypt when nobody wanted to speak to somebody in an American military uniform. But he started be a real force of bridging gaps of understanding, and he was soon offered a job at Al-Jazeera International, he took it, and he's continuing to do that in his life.

STEWART: What would make you really happy on May 11th?

Ms. NOUJAIM: I think that if there are screenings all over the world and people, you know, write - are connected with others who are also interested in bridging gaps of understanding and were connecting people with organizations on the ground and people really sign up to be a part of these organizations and help them in some way, that would be amazing.

I think we're living in a world right now where it just feels so - all the problems feel so big, what can one person do? So if we're able to provide an easy way - and people want to do something. I mean, I've seen these with films that I've shown around the world. When I showed "Control Room" around the world, people after the screening said, you know, what can we do? How can we affect our media? How can we get more - a better understanding of what's happening in the world? And I didn't have an answer. You know, I was sitting there. I'd shown them this film. They had been inspired to make a change in their lives, and I didn't have an answer for them.

So my hope is that on this day, we'll be able to provide links to organizations that are working on the ground, and people will follow through and make the world a better place.

STEWART: Chris, you're the man who's going to have to help get this done.

(Soundbite of laughter)

STEWART: Any pressure?

Mr. CHRIS ANDERSON (Curator, TED Conference): It's exciting. I mean, this is a really big idea. It's an idea that - you can imagine, you know, it's an idea that it's easy for someone to be cynical about, is this kind of this giant, you know, kumbaya moment around the world of everyone gathering together and watching film.

But the truth is I really think there's something solid here. I don't think this is just a warm and fuzzy idea. I think - well, really, it's a time in history when for the first time, it's possible. We've got the technology and the ability to connect as a global village. The idea of global village is a cliche. It's out there. But we don't act as a global village yet in the way that we could.

So for example, traditionally, a village might gather around a bonfire, tell stories and bond in that way. And, you know, all the technologies in place for us to do that is a global village now, through the incredible power of film and civic connectivity of the Internet and global telecommunications and so on. I think this day, our dream is that it become the start of a process, whereby people who want to think of themselves a little bit as global cells, have the chance to connect up with other global cells who, you know, may be in their neighborhood, if they never knew existed. But on this day, they'll meet them and get together and share this experience.

I think it will feel like a moment in history, because you will have this sense not only am I watching this powerful film right now that, you know, perhaps made by filmmaker from another country, a short film. But I've also got the sense that millions of other people around the world are watching it as well.

STEWART: We're speaking with Jehane Noujaim, who has a very big wish that will hopefully come true on May 10th, and Chris Anderson, curator of TED.

Chris, can you explain what TED is?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. ANDERSON: Well, TED stands for technology, entertainment and design. And it started off as a conference that just really focused on those three areas, which are actually three very different - this depends - and what we discovered at the time was that there was huge power in bringing together people from different disciplines that, unlike most conferences where you kind of go narrow and deep and focus on what you usually work on, at TED, you listen to people who are in areas completely different from what you're doing.

And it turns out that when you bring together people from a variety of different areas and skills and passions and hear them communicate what they're great at, it becomes really inspiring. We try and bring together the most interesting thought leaders or performers or musicians or artists or architects from, you know, any subject. We bring them together. Let them communicate something special.

And then, in the last year or so, we've taken to releasing what they talk about on the Internet. And with that, it's actually been a really thrilling surprise to discover that this 18-minute, you know, lectures, if you like, or talks have attracted this substantial worldwide audience.

STEWART: Jehane, if you have another wish granted by TED, what would it be? What would be wish number two?

Ms. NOUJAIM: Wish number two…

Mr. ANDERSON: (unintelligible)…

STEWART: I don't think Chris is ready for it.

(Soundbite of laughter)

STEWART: Have a sip of water, Chris.

Mr. ANDERSON: This one we're hoping will be not just the one-off. The intention is that Pangea Day becomes a regular event on the calendar. It seems to me that, you know, in a world where the technology allows us to have this global campfire, why shouldn't we do it? Why shouldn't people around the world get together and really tell stories using this powerful technology?

So I actually think that Jehane's first wish will also be her second, third, fourth and fifth, and that this thing will build into something that people really look forward to each year as really a powerful moment where they connect with the rest of human kind.

STEWART: I've never been able to ask somebody this question. What's it like to have a wish granted?

Ms. NOUJAIM: It's been an amazing process. And to meet people in the TED community that are excited about coming together to make something happen which you would never imagine you could actually do…

STEWART: Mm-hmm.

Ms. NOUJAIM: …has been an incredible process. And that's why we, you know, we created something that people - anybody could be involved in, really. We've made a call out to film schools around the world and unknown filmmakers as well. If you had five minutes of the world's attention, what story would you tell?

And on the other side, on the screening side, anybody can host a screening. So just go to host a screening on PangeaDay.org. And it's really creating a meet-up for the world, and we'll see what happens.

STEWART: Well, we'll have to have you back May 11th or May 12th to find out how it all went. Will you promise to come back?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. NOUJAIM: I promise to come back.

STEWART: Okay.

Ms. NOUJAIM: Yeah.

STEWART: Excellent.

Jehane Noujaim, thank you so much for being here. Chris Anderson, thank you as well.

Mr. ANDERSON: Thank you.

(Soundbite of music)

STEWART: And a reminder, Pangea Day is May 10th. You can submit a film through their Web site, PangeaDay.org. You spell that P-A-N-G-E-A.

(Soundbite of music)

RICO GAGLIANO, host:

That's it for the BPP this hour. Thanks for joining us. We are always online at npr.org/bryantpark.

STEWART: This is the BPP, from NPR News.

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