Interviews

Joana Hadjithomas Talks “Memory Box,” Her Berlinale Drama About Three Generations of Women

Joana Hadjithomas is an artist and filmmaker. She and collaborator Khalil Joreige have directed award-winning films such as “The Lebanese Rocket Society,” “A Perfect Day,” and “I Want To See” (“Je Veux Voir”). Their artwork is exhibited in museums, biennales, and art centers all over the world. In 2017, they were awarded the prestigious Marcel Duchamp Prize. They are cofounders of Abbout Productions.

“Memory Box” is screening at the 2021 Berlin International Film Festival. Joreige co-directed the film.

W&H: Describe the film for us in your own words.

JH: “Memory Box” is a story about three generations of women: Téta, the grandmother, Maia, the mother, and Alex, the teenage daughter. They’ve lived in Montreal since Téta and Maia left Lebanon at the end of the ’80s and never went back.

The family receives an unexpected delivery on Christmas Eve: notebooks, tapes, and photos Maia sent to her best friend from Beirut in the 1980s. Maia refuses to open the box and confront its memories, but her daughter Alex secretly begins diving into it.

Between fantasy and reality, Alex enters and reimagines the world of her mother’s tumultuous, passionate adolescence during the Lebanese civil war, unlocking mysteries of a hidden past.

W&H: What drew you to this story?

JH: It is a personal story. From 1982 to 1988, between the ages of 13 and 18, I wrote to my best friend every day in notebooks. I recorded audio-tapes and shared my teenage life during the Lebanese civil war and my friend did the same from Paris. Then, we lost contact for more than 25 years. We met again a few years ago and decided to exchange our notebooks.

Diving into those archives of youth and war created a strong emotion, all the moreso as our daughter had just celebrated her 13th birthday, which made me wonder how she would feel if she read the notebooks, and reflect on how to share and transmit memories and history.

For Khalil Joreige, my co-director, and me, the notebooks seemed a perfect means to talk about that and we decided to explore this biographical data through fiction — the story of Maia and Alex.

W&H: What do you want people to think about after they watch the film?

JH: First of all, I just want them to enjoy it. The film is a very emotional film, telling the story of a teenager and her mother in a way all of us can relate to. Alex feels her mother is hiding something and she wants to understand how her mother changed so much: Where has her passion gone?

It is also a film showing how, even in the extreme situation we went through in Lebanon during the civil wars in the ’80s, our generation wanted to live, to love, and to dream. It is a story of transmission and memory. We question the links to the past and confront the status of images and documents today: notebooks, tapes, and photographs of Maia’s world as a teenager and the approximations of memory, but also the technological relationship of Alex with Facebook and WhatsApp — a saturation of information, communication, and sharing.

The audience will see the story of friendship and love in the ’80s reimagined by a teenager through today’s technology.

W&H: What was the biggest challenge in making the film?

JH: The biggest challenge was to make a fiction film but based on my writings as well as sound and visual archives, and on photography that Khalil took in the late ‘8os, and at times documents such as newspapers, which we used in the movie to support the narrative. Though we didn’t want to do a documentary about my adolescence, we still used this existing material as it was a fantastic source.

We also had to fabricate new notebooks to serve the narrative, with images of the actors reconstituting the ’80s. We had to create more than 10,000 images to recreate the personal archive that we see in the film.

W&H: How did you get your film funded? Share some insights into how you got the film made.

JH: The film is a coproduction between Lebanon (Abbout Productions), France (Haut et Court), and Canada (micro_scope). The funds are largely public — French CNC, Telefilm Canada, etc. Some money came also from the support of Playtime, the world sales agent.

W&H: What inspired you to become a filmmaker?

JH: I work in a duo with Khalil. We started making images together at the end of the civil war in Lebanon, led by a sense of urgency and necessity. We felt that the after-war period was a strange moment where nothing was really addressed and resolved. Without ever making any art or attending film school, we took images, then wrote a story that evolved into our first film. We were inspired by the situation around us and still are.

W&H: What’s the best and worst advice you’ve received?

JH: I could say that the best advice I’ve received is very simple: to remain sincere and trust myself. The most complicated thing in the world!

The worst advice was possibly that I had to choose between being an artist or a filmmaker. I don’t like definitions and limitations. Usually Khalil and I explore a subject and then decide to make photography, an art installation, or a film.

W&H: What advice do you have for other women directors?

JH: I would say one has to believe very strongly in what they are doing and in the way they are doing it. Being different is always a chance and should never be felt as a handicap. In some situations, we have to fight a lot to simply be able to exist and live our life or our passion freely.

When we get to positions [of power], we should help others who are less fortunate, creating a chain of solidarity between us.

W&H: Name your favorite woman-directed film and why.

JH: There are many women directors I admire and respect — many of them paved the way for us to be able to work in that field. But here, I would like to make a tribute to the late Jocelyne Saab, gone too soon. She was a pioneer, very courageous and talented, some of her documentaries are just mind-blowing.

W&H: How are you adjusting to life during the COVID-19 pandemic? Are you keeping creative, and if so, how?

JH: We’re trying to write and work. We had a very tough year as our country, Lebanon, is going through a terrible financial and political crisis — we could even say a collapse! The population is held hostage by corrupt and criminal politicians. It culminated with the blast of August 4 that destroyed a third of [Beirut], killing and injuring so many.

I personally lost my house and my artist studio. Abbout Productions, the production company that we created alongside CEO Georges Schoucair, and I miraculously were saved from death. So this added to the COVID situation, I have a lot to think about and I keep writing to recover a bit and find some strength. But there is a part of me that is very angry and this anger gives me a lot of energy and a strong will. I try to work on new films.

W&H: The film industry has a long history of underrepresenting people of color onscreen and behind the scenes and reinforcing — and creating — negative stereotypes. What actions do you think need to be taken to make the film world more inclusive?

JH: As a woman and as an Arab woman, I am used to many of those stereotypes! From the very first work that I co-directed with Khalil, I was aware of the problem of those representations, and always tried to fight against them. We have to refuse to be victims and claim our singularity. We should create counter representations and take the offensive on fighting what we feel is not the way we want to be portrayed. We also should be producing art and films that make our voices heard and create images and narratives that are closer to us and what we believe in.

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