Words By Corey Binns
For Jehane Noujaim, there are few things more emotionally stirring than a movie. So when the 34-year-old filmmaker was offered the chance to change the world by having one wish become a reality, she didn't ask for money to build water wells or ship medical supplies. She asked for a four-hour film festival played simultaneously around the globe. With Pangea Day--named for Pangea, Earth's ancient, unified landmass--Noujaim aims to build compassion among people around the world by sharing their life stories and experiences on film. Noujaim's plans have come to fruition thanks to the TED Prize--a $100,000 award given to help people fulfill one world-changing wish--which she won in 2006.
On May 10, audiences will gather at screenings, online, and around cell phones and televisions in far-flung locales from Cairo to Rio de Janeiro. They'll be there to watch four hours of documentaries and short features made by people around the world, on pressing issues ranging from climate change to political repression (Pangea Day received more than 1,500 film submissions from 43 countries). The films will stream live on Pangea Day's website website, but Noujaim and her colleagues urge people to watch in groups, and have arranged for screenings in places that rarely feature films, including a Bedouin camp outside Jordan and a town square in Beirut. "My hope was to build a platform for that one boy in Africa or Pakistan or Myanmar to share his story and have the world listen. Because the minute people feel that their truth is relevant to the world, they begin to feel differently about themselves and their place in the world."
Noujaim's experiences as an Egyptian-American who grew up in the religiously and socially volatile Middle East have given her an understanding of how images can affect perspectives. "I believe that the images we see of ourselves--in the news, on the internet, or in film--help shape what we believe about ourselves and what others believe about us," she says. "And if those images are for the most part violent, humiliating, and degrading, what does that say about how young people will continue to see themselves and their relationship with the people who actually believe those images?"
While promoting Control Room, her award-winning film about the inner workings of the Qatar-based television network Al Jazeera, Noujaim noticed that audiences in the Middle East were particularly curious to hear what Americans thought of her portrayal of the Al Jazeera newsroom. The opposite occurred when she screened the film in the States, giving Noujaim a vivid appreciation for the divide between the two cultures. During the 2006 World Cup, Noujaim watched people around the world jury-rig televisions and satellite feeds, gathering in the streets to watch the ultimate soccer tournament. If only filmmakers had the power to gather people around screens in unison like this, she thought. From these two experiences the idea for Pangea Day was born. "Pangea is a humble step in a process that might help to replace complacency and fear about the other with curiosity and excitement about the other," she explains. "It is about getting into another person's head, seeing the world through another person's eyes."
Of course, what people do following Pangea Day is up to them. After the global screening, Pangea Day's website will be remodeled into a springboard for people to act on their inspiration from the films, featuring information on organizations that are helping to address the issues brought to light through the screening process. Previous TED winners have used their $100,000 for things like creating new cures for brain disorders, and Noujaim is the first to point out that her results wont be nearly as quantifiable, but, even though it's a little bit of a cliché to say, she'll be happy for even small, incremental change. "Pangea will succeed if just one person tells a story and he or she feels the power of his or her own voice; if someone else on the other side of the world, watching a screen, feels compelled to tell his story back," Noujaim says. "If you laugh with someone and humanize them, it's harder to kill them."
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