On November 23, 2011 I spotted a tweet from TED curator Chris Anderson reading: "@TEDchris: Our thoughts are with #TED prize winner film-maker Jehane Noujaim reportedly detained during unrest at #Tahrir 10:56am" -- My stomach dropped!
Jehane and I have been friends since meeting at the 2008 Democratic National Convention in Denver, Colorado. We instantly bonded over the colorful cast of characters we worked with on that project. I knew we were going to be eternal friends when at the Pepsi Center, shortly before presidential nominee Barack Obama made his speech, the only film crew who got to go backstage was Jehane and her cinematographer. The best part? They didn't even have credentials on! It is savvy women like these that inspire me to step up and get out.
Over the years Jehane and I have remained close and she was a natural addition to the tight-knit DOT-2-DOT family. Without a doubt, she was one of the initial top 35 people under 35 making this world a better place. A TEDPrize winner, she used her wish to organize Pangea Day, a live videoconference that took place in NYC, Rio de Janeiro, London, Dharamsala, Cairo, Jerusalem and Kigali, in addition to her world acclaimed films Control Room, and Startup.com which made her a cinematic powerhouse. After working with such intense female filmmakers as two-time Academy Award-winning Barbara Kopple, I knew Jehane was cut from the same cloth. A dual citizen of Egypt and the U.S., Jehane has been living in Cairo for the last few years making a film and chronicling the intensity of her country. Needless to say, she stops at nothing to uncover the truth.
Jump to the day before Thanksgiving 2011 when I saw that tweet from someone I have massive respect for, Chris Anderson. I sent an email to the DOT-2-DOT google group to see what media credentials we could get to Jehane while she was in prison. I spent the entire night lost in tears, thinking of the worst and hoping for the best. A female journalist, Mona Eltahawy, was also arrested and released only after a brutal beating and sexual assault by the Egyptian military. Frantic with fear, I found my friend and colleague Cameron Sinclair on Twitter and felt comforted knowing he, too, was posting as much as he could about Jehane in the hope that this attention would lead to her freedom. I emailed him to see if I could help and together we continued to pull at what strings we had in our grasp.
One of the DOTs who was based in Nairobi got a friend on the ground and in the Cairo prison with Jehane's lawyer. I had never spent Thanksgiving in bed mentally crossing three continents to help a friend but there is a well-deserved first time for everything I suppose. I didn't once wonder or guess or question, I simply ran ahead on pure adrenaline. At 6:38 a.m. I poured out an email to every powerful person I knew in media, international relations, and so on. The thread reached representatives from the U.S. State Department (a Dot, of course), TED, CNN, ABC, NBC, CBS, and the New York Times Cairo Bureau. Suddenly, about 15-20 of the most influential people in media, PR, Jehane's life and I were on one email figuring out how to help. It read:
My trusted friends + colleagues... If you are receiving this email you are connected in the international film, tv and media arena... and I hope you can possibly help my friend Jehane Noujaim.
U.S./Egyptian filmmaker Jehane Noujaim was arrested yesterday in Tahrir Square in Cairo. I have heard that they may be charging her with setting fire to a military truck which I know Jehane couldn't hurt a fly. I also heard they may be charging her for filming without a permit. I have been told that she needs media credentials brought to her at the prison... She is supposedly going to trial at any moment today... Her lawyer Ragio Orman is with her. If there is anyone who can help with getting media credentials to her... She is at the Abdeen Police Station and she and Magdy Ashour will appear before El Wayley Prosecution. Here is a press link.
Here is Jehane's Ted Talk on her global wish for peace thru film... (did I mention she is a TEDPrize winner)
Any help you can offer would be greatly appreciated. Thank you. Rachel
Since my activist/agent of change days begun over a decade ago, I always knew I had a spark to start a fire but in this severe moment, in this intense vision of reality, I acknowledged the gift I could bring to a friend who had already brought me and this global community so much. I never imagined Jehane would be here and I certainly never imagined that I would help on the ground and in cyberspace till she was safely released from prison. I realized in that instance how much one person really can do, how much I can do, and how these AOC connections I had built were the real fruit of my years-long labors.
After 36 hours Jehane was released. However, I wasn't going to be satisfied until I saw her name pop up on Skype. I knew she was out, I was told she was unharmed, but still I was worried. A picture was sent out and finally, I could exhale. When I finally got an email from her it was as gracious and full of love as Jehane always is, thankful for my leadership and everyone's efforts.
This Agent of Change work isn't always perfect and it isn't always cheerful. But it is everything to me and just a few weeks ago, it was everything to a friend trapped in prison on the other side of the world. Perfect or not, that works for me.