Fellows Friday with Saeed Taji Farouky

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Documentary filmmaker and photographer Saeed Taji Farouky is always looking for a challenge. Whether it’s creating radically honest films, climbing mountains, or running ultramarathons, Saeed says the secret to success is to “be the person who can endure the longest.”

What’s the main film project you’re working on right now?

The Runner is a long-form documentary, the longest and most ambitious documentary I’ve worked on so far. It’s a film about endurance, about what it is that keeps people running. Specifically it’s the story of a long-distance runner called Salah Ameidan. He’s from the Western Sahara, which is the last colony in Africa.

Salah Ameidan was born in Moroccan-controlled Western Sahara. Western Sahara has been under Moroccan occupation since 1975. Salah would run as a child, and he became extremely good at running. His family members were activists in the Western Sahara liberation movement, but Saleh was coerced into joining the Moroccan National Sports team. The Moroccans threatened to continually harass his family if they didn’t let Salah join the team.

Salah became an incredible athlete, with several titles to his name from Morocco. In 2003 he decided to finally make a stand. When he was crossing the finish line of a race in France, in first place, he pulled out the Sahrawi flag and waved it across the finish line. The flag is illegal in Morocco, and Salah knew that he would never be allowed back into Morocco, without being arrested as a dissident. So he became a refugee in France, and he’s lived there ever since.

Saeed and collaborator Brendan Butler filming Salah Ameidan outside the Sahrawi refugee camps of Algeria. (Photography courtesy of Jo Metson Scott)

I see in Salah this incredible use of running, as a form of escape, but also a form of keeping himself very firmly inside this liberation movement. The liberation movement is based on lines on a map. It’s based on the political definition of a state. Yet Salah’s running, particularly running long distances, is a great way of breaking those lines … of denying those lines and saying they’re meaningless. If you can run 600 kilometers across the Sahara Desert, you can really defy the definition of borders.

Are you working on any other films?

I’m working on a number of projects. One is a series here in the UK. It’s about the violence of the sea. I was approached by a guy, Nicholas St Aubyn, that I work with occasionally. He’s originally from Cornwall, which is famous for its rough seas. He had been doing a lot of research on the shipwrecks on the Cornish Coast.  He said, “I think it’d be really interesting to do a series of film about different people, who are all connected, somehow, to the violence of the sea.” I found that to be a really beautiful phrase. I’ve often been really drawn to the sea, mainly because it is both beautiful and very destructive at the same time. There’s something really intriguing about that.

The film is five short films that create one longer story. Each of them is an impressionistic portrait of a different person who works on a very specific area of the Cornish Coast — that’s the most dangerous stretch of water in Britain. We have a fisherman, a lifeboat captain, a diver who does SCUBA diving on wrecks, the writer Nicholas St Aubyn, and a man who works on offshore wind farms — he’s a survivor of a very famous lifeboat accident on the British coast.

You’re also a photographer. Are you doing any photography these days?

Here in the UK, the Justice Minister recently said, “We need to save a few tens of millions pounds on enacting justice in the UK.” So that means somehow we have to find a cheaper way to try people and punish them or rehabilitate them. So my current photography project is looking at alternatives to prison. It’s looking at what a cut-price justice system would look like in the UK.

I’m looking at some pretty radical proposals like completely legalizing all drug use in the UK — thereby taking users and dealers out of the prison system, which is a huge expense. I’m also looking at things like community service rather than being imprisoned. Then there’s restorative justice, which is really radical: the perpetrator and the victim are brought face-to-face. They then have discussions about what happened in the crime, what the consequences were, why the crime was committed. There’s evidence that it cuts re-imprisonment rates by a huge amount.

And there are other things that are not new ideas but still controversial, like private prisons that are run for profit, rather than run by the state. In open prisons, prisoners are given a lot more responsibility, and they can come and go, rather than being locked up.

So there are a lot of proposals, but they are all aiming to one thing: justice on the cheap.

You’ve said your first film, “I See the Stars at Noon,” influenced your unique approach to filmmaking.

It started with my background in pretty mainstream news journalism. I think when you spend enough time in that field, you realize that it’s based on obfuscating the process behind it. To report on the news, all you can do is give your conclusions. And you’re never allowed to say “I don’t know.” And to me, the most honest and transparent thing a journalist could say is, “I don’t know.” Creating “I See the Stars at Noon” really defined what then became this transparency, my approach to documentary filmmaking.

I deliberately chose a very difficult topic. I wanted to make a film about someone who was trying to emigrate illegally to Europe from Morocco. If you were to pitch that to a broadcaster, they would say, “Well you’ve never made a film before, how do I know you’re going to do this?” Plus they would say, “Someone who’s going to do an illegal crossing, there’s no way they’re going to want you to film with them. This film is not logical, you can’t make it.”

So I decided to do that because it was a challenge and a very important story. I had been working in Morocco for a year running tours. When you go to Morocco, everyone tells the tourists “We love Morocco, it’s beautiful.” And it is beautiful, and yet, thousands of people every month are trying to get on to tiny boats and cross to Europe. So something must be going on. And I wanted to tell that story.

And originally I said, “Ok, I’m a journalist, I’m a documentary filmmaker. I have to be totally detached from the subject and just tell the story as it unfolds in front of me. At that time I had swallowed the mainstream documentary filmmaking ideology whole. Of course, three or four days into the film, I realized it was absolutely impossible. What do you do then when the guy in the film turns to you and says, “I see you as my brother now. I think you and I are on this journey together”?

How did you meet somebody willing to agree to be filmed in their illegal immigration?

I checked into a cheap hotel in Tangiers because I knew that most people made the trip from there. It only took me two days to find someone. I was just standing on the balcony of the hotel and someone came out and started talking to me. He said, “What are you doing here?” and I said, “Well, this may sound a little crazy, but this is what I want to do.” And he said, “Oh, that’s interesting, I’m here to try to cross into Europe.” So I said, “Ok, can I interview you?” And he said, “Yeah, why not?” And it just went from there.

Wasn’t he afraid that being filmed would help authorities find him?

Yes, and so was I. But I think he was aware of several things. First of all, that I would just be company with him. When you’re on your own, that’s very valuable. Second of all, he really saw the importance of telling the story. It was really interesting — half way through the film, it got to a point where we would be sitting in a hotel room and he’d say, “Oh, Saeed, start filming, there’s something really important I want to tell you.” He said, “I want people to see what my life is like and why I’m trying to escape out of Morocco.”

And in a more cynical but practical sense, he saw that I had more money than he did, and I could possibly help him in that way. So I think there were several reasons.

I finished making that film, and suddenly the way I saw all documentaries from then on was completely different. I realized that the way a documentary is presented to you as the filmmaker being a neutral party is an absolute lie. I really can’t tolerate seeing films like that anymore. I just find it very dishonest and very manipulative. Film is manipulative anyway, so let’s be honest about it rather than pretending it’s not.

You’ve said that as much as you enjoy filmmaking, it’s nothing compared to climbing your first mountain.

Rock climbing is still a huge obsession of mine, but for financial reasons it’s now been replaced by ultra-endurance running. Through the making of this documentary “The Runner,” I started running again. I’m now determined to run an ultramarathon. I can officially declare here that by the time I’m finished making “The Runner” as a documentary, I will have run an ultramarathon. That’s my challenge to myself.

You know, filmmaking is ridiculous, in a way — it’s a very impractical thing to do as a job, it’s an extremely expensive hobby and obsession to have. And yet there’s something very fulfilling about torturing yourself, and finally ending up with this product. A product that’s ninety minutes long and can fit on a DVD. Somehow you can reduce that entire two years of development, and obsessing over the subject into a ninety-minute, 2-dimensional experience of just sound and images.

In the same way, when you decide you want to climb a mountain, it’s an absolutely ridiculous undertaking. There’s no reason to do it. You are putting yourself in a very dangerous situation and challenging yourself to get out of it. Getting out of it means making it to the top, where you’re on flat ground, and you can finally put your feet down. But that’s where you started in the first place.

So the thing that links them is the ridiculous challenge of it. It seems totally illogical and nonsensical, and yet, there’s something pushing you to do it.

When I’m done climbing or running, there’s the residual feeling, which is that your muscles are sore, or your lungs are about to burst, or your hands have calluses, or you scratched yourself on the rock. That’s what’s missing for me in filmmaking. There’s no physical evidence. You’re done with a film and you’re left with — it’s just time. You’re left with ninety minutes, that’s it. And all the information there is digital, or it’s a roll of film.

With climbing you have a rock you can point to and say, “I climbed it.” So for me rock climbing is just that tiny bit greater than filmmaking.

There are many aspiring social entrepreneurs out there who are trying to take their passion and ideas to the next level. What is one piece of advice you would give to them based on your own experiences and successes?

Learn more about how to become a great social entrepreneur from all of the TED Fellows on the Case Foundation blog.

I think it’s the same for any kind of undertaking,  any huge challenge. The person who succeeds will always be the person who can endure the longest.

I see it as very much related to long distance running, hiking, and that sort of thing. If you are the sort of person that would never drop out of a race because you’re in pain — would figure out another way of making it to the end — you’re the kind of person who would last the longest in other challenges. You’d say, “I’m willing to have no money for the next ten years, because I know that this is going to work in ten years’ time. I’m willing to not have a stable job today because I know that in ten years my social business or my documentary film will be finished.”

While everyone else says, “I’m just going to work in a bank for a couple of years, and then live my dream,” they almost never do.

You have to be one hundred percent dedicated and obsessed — in a good way. In the sense that you can not do anything else. I’ve tried to get so many different kinds of jobs that would be stable and pay well. And I literally could not. I just failed every single time. I realized after about five years I was sabotaging those opportunities. In the back of my mind I was saying, “No, no, what you really want to do is make films. You don’t want this job.” And then I wouldn’t get it. So eventually I started listening to that voice in my head. I decided to make my own film.

Saeed and equipment, in the Sahrawi refugee camps of Algeria. (Photography courtesy of Jo Metson Scott)

Stop being the person who is trying to be something. Be the person who is something. Just go out and do it.

Has your TED Fellowship experience influenced this attitude?

Oh yeah, in a huge way. It’s very psychological. I’m Palestinian, but I’ve been in Britain for a little over half my life, so I have this very British thing where you’re not allowed to have any confidence in your work, you’re not allowed to take praise well, and basically you just have to downplay everything that you do.

So suddenly in the context of TED, it has this incredible Californian attitude to everything, which is completely the opposite. Everyone’s really enthusiastic about people’s work. For a while when people were saying, “Saeed, we’re really happy to have you here! You’re a TED Fellow, welcome to the club! Your work is brilliant, you’re going to meet other people that do brilliant work.” I spent a couple of days going, “Yeah, yeah, whatever, I’ve heard it all before. I don’t believe you.” Then finally it broke through. I had been beaten over the head long enough with this message that I finally said, “Ok, I’ll give in and try it for awhile.” It just made a huge difference in my self-confidence.

I’m very happy doing films outside of mainstream documentaries. But before I went to TED, when I would go to mainstream news events, the question was “How do I tell people that I make films but I don’t work for Channel 4?” I would talk around it and say, “Yeah, I make films, but I don’t work in the news industry, so you probably wouldn’t have heard of me, or seen my work.”

I came back from California and I thought, “Well, I’m doing what I love.” Unfortunately, in the television industry, many of those people considered a “success” are inevitably the people that will say to me, “I wish I could do what you do, because you just make the films that you want to make.” I don’t mean that to sound conceited . It’s simply the fact that, I can make my own films because I’m the person who’s willing to live on the least and put the most amount of my own time into my own film.