"What we like is to tell stories": 'Memory Box' filmmakers Joana Hadjithomas & Khalil Joreige

Spanning three generations of Lebanese women, the filmmakers find a way to begin a dialogue across ages and borders and the result is a magical, beautiful film.
"What we like is to tell stories": 'Memory Box' filmmakers Joana Hadjithomas & Khalil Joreige

What if you came across a time capsule of yourself in your teenage years? And what would that contain and entail? But also, how would that discovery change your life and the lives of those around you?

Those are the basic questions at the centre of the latest work by award winning, real life couple Joana Hadjithomas and Khalil Joreige. Absent from the filmmaking radars since their much-talked about 2012 documentary The Lebanese Rocket Society, Hadjithomas and Joreige are also artists and their projects have included installations, as well as performance art. Whatever it takes to tell their stories, the duo will make it.

This weekend, Memory Box opened in the UK and to much critical acclaim. When it premiered in Berlinale last winter, it was talked about too and a Lebanese filmmaker friend suggested I watch it because, he said, "it's such a powerful, poetic" oeuvre. The film will hopefully also be screened in Lebanese cinemas in February of this year, according to the filmmakers.

The story of Memory Box begins in modern times when, during a blizzard, a package arrives from France to the Canadian home of Maia (Rim Turki) and her teenage daughter Alex (Paloma Vauthier). Inside the box, are Maia's teenage correspondence notebooks with her best friend Liza, from the 1980's. At the start of the Lebanese Civil War, the girl had moved to Paris with her mom and now that Liza has passed away, the “memory box” has been returned to its sender.

But Maia isn't the one who signs for the box, it's instead Alex with her Teta ("grandma", played by Clemence Sabbagh) who insists they hide the package from Maia as the memories will be too much for her. As Alex becomes more and more drawn to that which is "forbidden" and hiding in the basement, she discovers a world she has never known -- her homeland, but also a time and a woman which seem both foreign and familiar.

The film moves seamlessly back and forth between Alex's modern day discovery and Maia as a teenager (played by the sublime Manal Issa) trying to figure out her path in life, during the insanity of a Civil War.

I caught up with the generous, insightful filmmakers while they were screening the film at the Cairo International Film Festival back in December 2021. And if you're interested in listening to the couple speak online to celebrate the film's release in the UK, register for this Zoom conversation, moderated by SAFAR curator Rabih El-Khoury.

How was it watching the film with the audiences in Cairo?

Hadjithomas: I have to say it was great because we were we've been touring with the film in different places, different countries — in Montreal we did a great screening, Torino… Many many places. But this was the first time in which people could speak and understand the language in a different way. And we had such a warm screening really, we were very touched and moved. And the audience was very young!

Of course, there were a lot of people that were from our generation and even older, but there was maybe half of the audience who were 20 or 25. And they were eager to know, they asked questions, they followed me out of the screening. We stayed practically an hour outside the theatre with them. 

Also the jury gave you the best film award in the “Horizons of Arab Cinema” section!

Hadjithomas: This was really a very, very happy moment. And it has been a long time. We couldn't go to Cairo for many reasons. When we started working. we were showing a lot of our artwork, installations, or films in Cairo and then suddenly after what happened, it took us a while to get an invitation to come back. And so we were very excited to show the film in Cairo.

The idea of the film comes from your own diaries?

Hadjithomas: The film is based on diaries and letters — more like notebooks because it’s a diary to someone else. I had very good friend in the 80’s we were really inseparable and her mother was French and she decided that she had to leave for France, to be able to escape from the Civil War. And so she took her daughter. It was 1982. 

We promised each other that we would write to each other every day. And we did write to each other for six years — from ’82 to ’88. We wrote notebooks, letters and we recorded a lot of tapes, because at that moment, you know, you would record tapes. With songs that would be missing the first notes… And we exchanged this correspondence and then, we lost track of each other. We couldn't really see each other for more than 25 years.

Twenty five years later, we met again and we exchanged our correspondences. She said I kept everything I said the same and we swapped. And at that moment, I had my everyday life for six years. And I didn't know what to do with it. 

Our daughter, she wanted to read the notebooks and we felt it was maybe not a very good idea, but we thought that it was a good idea for the film and in the same time Khalil had a lot of archival footage. 

Joreige: There were several reasons for not sharing it with our daughter. First it was that Joana noted that what was in the notebooks was very different from what she told us. When she was reading the notebooks there was a huge difference. And at that age it's better not, with a teenager, to focus on these differences. And for the film, because it’s a fiction, we started from this specific situation. And we decided to add my photographic archive, because I was doing the same [during that time period] but with photos. So the archival images you are seeing in the film are mine.

Plus all the image that we had to produce specifically for the film with the cast, we had to shoot nearly 10,000 pictures to reinvent with the characters, all the situations. 

What I find also fascinating is that you're telling the story of a country and you know, a very specific country, and a very specific history, in a very personal way. And it’s something your films do in particular. How is it collaborating with each other?

Hadjithomas: What we like is to tell stories — we see ourselves as storytellers and we use those stories in many ways. Because we don't really have frontiers and we cherish our freedom. We really want to keep open the possibility to go back and to do a short films, or a feature film or a documentary or an installation — always to tell the story in a different way. 

And not only to tell a story, but we need to find a way to challenge ourselves. With Memory Box it was this idea of how we could show the 80’s in the mind of someone that is reading notebooks today. How a teenager today, with all the tools that they have, like phones, different ways to show and tell their stories, can connect with the diaries of her mother. And what does it mean to have the possibility to read the everyday of your mother, as she was the same age as you are today.

Joreige: The way we deal with images has completely changed from my generation to our daughter’s. In my archive I have nearly 50,000 images, and my daughter in six months on Snapchat did a similar amount. 

Of course at the beginning we were a bit judgmental, but by talking with her and watching what she was doing we noticed that she was keeping another kind of diary in her way, full of selfies. Where mine, there were no selfies at my time. 

We are interested in how images are moving all the time — through technologies, through our relation to society and to the real. We want to put all that questioning in the core of our project.

I always think that cinema is a way to bridge cultures. But in this case, it was a way to bridge generations?

Joreige: It’s all about "transmission" for us. In all our films, that question is there. How do you tell the story, because we didn’t study art or cinema, we came to that because we had to deal with the past. It was difficult for us to be able to live this present, it was haunted by a lot of ghosts and we had to deal with those ghosts. 

We had not choice, we had to do this. 

So cinema became almost a therapy for you both?

Hadjithomas: What was really interesting was to talk like you were saying, to three generations. While I was reading the notebooks, I felt that I had a lot of compassion towards my parents, because in the notebooks I’m of course very violent against them and I hate them because they didn’t let me go to a party, etc… What's really incredible is that you would read them, and from reading them we don't understand anything about the events that happened in this world. There is no trauma, it’s not about trauma — I’m scared sometimes, and afraid, and I’m sad but the main obsession for me is to have fun. I want to dream, I want to love, I want to go out, I lie to my parents, because I want to have a normal life. 

It’s really interesting to tell a story with this kind of focus because you never get to know how people really live in wars. How do they grow up… because wars can last a very long time. Our war lasted more than 15 years and maybe it is never really finished. But what we really wanted as teenagers was to have a normal life and we couldn’t have that. So this was an interesting way to talk about our parents’ generation, ours and transmit it to the next generation. 

It’s almost like you found a time capsule in those notebooks that helped you to navigate the present… and even the future maybe?

Hadjithomas: Yeah, exactly. But we have to say that our intention was to transmit something from the past to be able to live the present, because we always feel with Khalil that it’s about accepting the past — to share a common path. You cannot build a society if there is no common past. Because we cannot talk about history in Lebanon, we don't have a common history. But we do have common memories.

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