A Cuban African Odyssey with Egypt’s Jihan El-Tahri

11 Min Read

By Myriam Ghattas

Jihan El-Tahri is a French Egyptian national who had never screened her films in her own country, Egypt, until recently. This unfortunate oversight was thankfully corrected with her invitation to participate in the Fourth Panorama of the European Film, the lone Cairene film festival of the year that wrapped up at the end of November amidst growing unrest and revolt converging in the central Tahrir Square.

The work of the award winning documentary filmmaker includes the Emmy-nominated “The House of Saud” (2005). The outspoken filmmaker was in Cairo to present “Cuba: Une Odyssée Africaine” (2007), a documentary made up of two parts.

The first part narrates the events surrounding the Congolese people’s initiative to overthrow the colonizing powers that controlled them in the 1960s, a messy affair that involved Cuban support under the umbrella of Internationalism. What comes as a big revelation in documentary’s first part is the fact that Che Guevara himself, adopting the Swahili name of Tatu, participated in the mission that set off from Cuba to the Congo to assist with the insurrection.

The second part revolves, a decade later, around the Cuban Internationalists’ participation in the Angolan war for independence and the negotiations with South Africa that took place in Cairo in the 1980s and which, among other things, led to the liberation of Nelson Mandela from political prison.

Introducing her film at the Panorama screening, El-Tahri spoke of her interest in the untold story: “For me the real attempt to understand in this film was that point in time of the 60s where African liberation tried to find a space to battle for their own independence.

“I wanted to understand why all these countries and all these visionaries that led to African liberation got up and struggled against colonialism, yet once they got [their] independence things seemed to fall apart. This is the story of a lot of liberation battles that were won but also where the war for real independence was lost and seems to continue.

“When I started this film, all the literature, everything documented basically said that Africa was the battlefield for the Cold War. It was implied that the African Liberation Movement didn’t really do much, that they basically got their independence as a consequence of that Cold War conflict.

“Then I found the minutes of a conversation between Fidel Castro and Khrouchtchev. And in that conversation, which took place at a time just before my film begins, it was obvious that they were on very bad terms. I could not understand why this would be just a superpower game when the relationship was bad.”

Following the screening in Cairo, El-Tahri further elaborated on the process that led her down the road of unexpected discoveries.

“The concept of Internationalism is something that I was not aware of. When I started doing the research, I’d heard of the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) but I didn’t know that the conflict of Internationalism and the solidarity of the weak as an alternative to both socialism and capitalism was something that was really worked on but failed. And it’s not because it failed that it means it never existed. I think that it’s really important for how we perceive our own history.”

El-Tahri interviewed a great number of people, including Castro himself. Ironically, the higher the profile the easier it was to get hold of the participants. Triggered by the publication of Che’s posthumous memoirs in 1996, El-Tahri set out on a veritable people-hunt in an attempt to answer the increasingly glaring question of why the Soviet Union would send Che to the Congo when Cuba and Russia were in disagreement.

“I decided to go to Cuba and look for the people who were with Che in the Congo,” the filmmaker recalled. “The only information I had was that they were all black and they all had nom de guerres which were 1, 2, 3, 4, so it was not a lot to go on with. I went to the areas in Havana where there could only be black people and I knocked on doors asking, ‘Do you know anyone who fought with the Che?’

“Finally out of the 123 soldiers that went with Che, I found about 92 of them. When I asked them, ‘Why would the Soviet Union support you?’ They all had to say, ‘What do you mean, support us? We were putting ourselves in disguise so the Soviets wouldn’t know that we were there!’”

When she confronted a former KGB officer with the finding, he admitted, “OK, now we are saying that we knew, but the first time I ever found out that Che was in the Congo was when the (memoirs) came out in ’96.’ ”

El-Tahri remarked, “There is a written history and there is an oral history that holds enormous amount of information from our side of the story. We haven’t written our history yet so I think it is about time we do that.”

Evidently El-Tahri’s films gain their edge from her desire to explore her subjects by means of less-trodden routes. For “Cuba: Une Odysée Africaine,” the Western literature she read was too biased for her taste.
It took her five years to complete the film and the journey and the research weren’t easy.

“A big part of it was battling to find archives and to let me into them. The overall majority of archives I wanted to use were from African and local sources. My point is, if we’re going to tell history from our own perspective, images tell their own story, so let’s say a good 70 percent of all my images are either from the Congolese, Angolan or the Cuban archive.”

A facet that the filmmaker distinctly focused on is a comparison between the motives of international intervention initiated by capitalist countries versus those operated by NAM-type and Internationalist affiliates. The colorful Jorge Risquet, head of the Cuban delegation in the Angolan negotiations, recalled: “All we brought back from Angola were the corpses of our comrades, no oil and no diamonds.”

The process of making “Cuba: Une Odyssée Africaine” is an odyssey all of its own. The amount of information delivered is phenomenal and significant portions of it are unique to the film as they were brought to light for the first time thanks to El-Tahri’s skilled investigations and persistence.

The tone of the conversation shifted gradually from a casual meditation on a fascinating historical battle for independence to a far more personal dimension: that which drives El-Tahri’s motives as a filmmaker home to her identity as an Egyptian.

“The basis of all my films is a concern to try to understand why we have not obtained the thing we have fought for. Since colonization, we Egyptians have fought for a different kind of life that we did not get, and we got scattered a little bit all over the place.

“People qualified (this film) as objective but it’s not objective at all. I maintain and insist that this film is perfectly subjective; it is my reading and my attempt to understand a period of history with only one trajectory from it. The choice of sewing together the stories of the African revolutions with the Cuban thread is a choice I made for many reasons, but especially because Cuba had just obtained their own independence the year prior.

“The populations have always been a little oppressed without being able to do otherwise. And that’s why at the end of the film I said that the [same] words of these visionaries still resonate quite near, such as to ongoing Tahrir million-man protests. I truly believe that the story is the same, and that is why for me I absolutely insist as an Egyptian that we are first and foremost African, because we have a common story. The more that they try to distance us from this part of the world the more we become estranged from our true depth and our common history.”

When asked about her views on the present situation in Egypt, El-Tahri was adamant in her response.

“From my perspective, what is happening now is a real attempt to divide the population, divide to rule. And it works every time. But every time that the population is divided, the more that what we want as a people becomes smaller.

“All the concessions that we accept to avoid instability take a toll on our freedom and our independence. Unfortunately, true independence has a price and if we are not ready to pay that price, whatever it is, we simply will not be independent.”


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