Joana Hadjithomas and Khalil Joreige on Opening Up the Present in “Memory Box”

As Joana Hadjithomas and Khalil Joreige sifted through their own personal archives of notebooks and photos from their youth, invigorated by what they were uncovering, they started thinking of ways that they could bring that same sensation out of the actors that would ultimately inhabit their compelling family drama “Memory Box,” recognizing that they could spread their personal effects out like breadcrumbs for the cast to come across on the day of shooting.

“When [Paloma Vauthier, who played] Alex was reading, she was really reading the life of her mother [in the film]…,” Hadjithomas said recently.

“Or her director…,” Joreige clarified with a hearty laugh.

“She was getting so excited about the events and pictures she was discovering,” said Hadjithomas.

It’s a feeling that extends to the whole of the multidisciplinary artists’ fourth feature and their most personal to date when it’s rooted in six years’ worth of correspondence that Hadjithomas once shared with a close friend after the two were separated by the war that would upend their native Lebanon when Israeli forces invaded the country in 1982. While there is reticence on the part of Maia (Rim Turki), the mother at the center of “Memory Box,” to revisit this traumatic past, Hadjithomas and Joreige, who contributed photos from his own teenage years in Beirut, eagerly dive in, reflecting on the more abstract effects that such a conflict can have on an individual level, creating distance between people that isn’t only geographic in the case of Maia and her friend who moved to Paris, but emotionally when her daughter Alex (Vauthier) can’t understand why she’s reluctant to unlock the box she receives all these years later from the friend, taking it upon herself to crack it open.

Although Hadjithomas and Joreige make Maia’s reluctance understandable, they also are sure to reward Alex’s curiosity when the various audio recordings, photo albums and hand-scrawled messages come alive in Alex’s reading of them during a snowstorm in Montreal when she’s unable to see her own friends, though keeping up a connection in texts. Turning the memories into something you can hold, the filmmakers elicit the tactility of intimacy where physical proximity may be impossible but people find ways to remain close to one another and the strength of that bond becomes enough to pull people through the most difficult of times. Hadjithomas and Joreige might’ve had to be reminded of this themselves when after completing principal photography on “Memory Box,” an explosion at the Port of Beirut in August of 2020 that left more than 200 people dead and hundreds of thousands unhoused became emblematic of a country thrust back into turmoil, with economic stagnation since the Lebanese pound precipitously fell in value the year before and the ongoing strife in Syria always a risk of spilling across its northern and eastern borders.

Still, “Memory Box” exudes the indefatigable spirit of the country in which it’s largely set when Hadjithomas and Joreige invoke artistic expression as much as practicing it themselves when pop songs and ornately decorated communiqués become a precious common currency among its characters, with each creation instilling a sense of hope and inspiration that cumulatively as a film makes for a powerful act of resistance. After concluding a celebrated year-long festival run that began at Berlin in 2021, the film was a natural selection for Lebanon to represent the country at the Oscars and the filmmakers graciously took the time recently to talk about how they built upon their experience with mixed media projects to create an indelible drama, building their cast based on the personal experiences they had, and how they pulled from their imagination to create some of the film’s impressive practical effects.

Is it true this all started with your own daughter?

Joana Hadjithomas: The film is based on notebooks I wrote to my best friend when I was a teenager. I was living in Beirut [during] a civil war and her mother was French, so they decided to leave to Paris and we promised each other that we’d write every day. We wrote or recorded tapes or sent pictures for six years from ’82 to ‘88 and after those years, we lost contact. Twenty-five years later, we met again and we exchanged all our notebooks because she said, “I have everything,” and I said the same, so we started reading them because it was such a precise archive of those days. And our daughter, who was 13, wanted to read them, but I thought it’s not really good for her to be able to read her mother’s diary and to see her teenage years on an everyday basis. [laughs] But we felt this is an interesting topic for a film.

Khalil Joreige: And we felt another kind of gap after the notebooks arrived, [because] we noticed [our daughter] had this Snapchat application and that she made as many images in six months as I did in 25 years. Of course, it’s not the same kinds of images and at the beginning, I reacted badly like, “God, you are addicted to your phone.” But it was a way for us to understand that her smartphone was another kind of interface with the world, a tool to be confront the real and of course, it’s not the same kind of images, but nevertheless a way to apprehend and have a relationship to the real.

Joana Hadjithomas: Because our interest was also how do you revisit the past with the tools of today and without nostalgia.

It’s such an interesting parallel in that Alex is connected to her friends but separated during this snowstorm when she learns of the box in the film. Did that setting come immediately?

Joana Hadjithomas: Yeah, because we wanted Alex to be stuck at home and we chose Montreal because there’s a lot of refugees who go into exile and Montreal seems very far from Beirut, so when you are there in Canada, it’s plausible that you didn’t come back for more than 30 years. We started feeling it would be great if there is a storm outside and it’s a bit before the [COVID] confinement and everyone started opening up their boxes… [laughs]

Khalil Joreige: Yeah, we shot it before the confinement and during the confinement everybody went back to their archive, their pictures, start to try to index things or revisit their past.

Was it interesting laying out these archival materials as a narrative?

Joana Hadjithomas: Yeah, it was one of our major interests because we had these notebooks and tapes and we also the archives of Khalil’s photography, so the idea was to build a story that was a total fiction, and Khalil and I really like this idea to work with documents and fiction [because] you can really add a veracity to a story or fictionalize something that has to do with your life.

Khalil Joreige: And the fact we had such an incredible archive allowed us to understand many things because while Joana was writing every day [in Lebanon], I’m taking about 40-50 images [in my own life], so you had a lot of details about her daily life, things that you usually forgot with time and this distortion with time was very important. We noticed she was not focusing on the war or the politics [in her writing] despite the fact she was very involved in this, but what was interesting for her is this tension in her will to live and to live a normal life. There was this intensity that was always present and you can find in all countries [which] is why we were hearing the same kind of music as anywhere in the world…

Joana Hadjithomas: All those small details were really important and we [were interested in] this idea of how do you transmit the past, and something that is totally immaterial? We worked on the script with Gaëlle Macé, a screenwriter that is famous in Paris because she represented to us in a way [the perspective of] Alex — she doesn’t know anything about Lebanon or the civil war or our youth in a way, so she would also have to fantasize about what she reads. This idea really held a tension that we liked.

You’re known not to give a full script to your actors either to generate that kind of discovery. Were they actually reacting to the archival materials here in the moment of filming?

Joana Hadjithomas: Exactly. The idea is that here we had three generations of women — the grandmother, the mother and the daughter — and we’ve worked this way for a while where we don’t give a script to the actor and during the casting process, we choose people that in a way inspire us and are close to the characters of the films, so they also bring their part of their life. For instance, Paloma Vauthier who plays Alex the teenager, has a complicated story with Lebanon because her father is Lebanese but had to leave when he was really a child, so she was really embodying this character with her own questions and anxieties and her own will to know. And Rim Turks, who plays Maya, left her passion that was acting 15 years ago for personal reasons and was coming back to acting, so [like] Maya, when she opens this box, she is reconnecting to her past [when] reconnecting with her life as an actress.

Khalil Joriege: The choice of the casting is very important because it is [also about] how they will accept also your method of work, but for us to understand even more [how the actors] will embody our character, that you will consider that something is happening and we are recording what is happening.

Joana Hadjithomas: It’s like when we use Khalil’s picture and my notebooks directly in the film, we hope that something will appear with the actors and will mix some fiction and some part of their life.

Khalil Joriege: In every shot, what we are looking for is a way to have the sensation that is occurring for the first time in front of us, that it is not written but suddenly it is happening. There is something magical that after you have to recompose [in the edit] because very strangely, it is also quite close to the script, but we don’t know how it happened because they don’t know the script. We hope that things will occur, but the script is a minimum and they will add something vivid.

How much experimentation is there in the editing room when you’re doing all these fun things with illustrating events in the characters’ lives as contact sheets and flip books?

Joana Hadjithomas: There was an intention when we started that we will do some artistic experimentation in this film and we will not do special effects in a traditional way because Alex is going to imagine the life of her mother and recreate some episodes based on pictures.

Khalil Joriege: It’s something also about the possibility and the potential of cinema, going back to how Melies was doing some special effects. [Our idea for scenes that unfold in the film as pictures with a clear border] we call “Vision” came from the fact that a picture is a frame, so you don’t know what is outside the frame, and you have to imagine, but if you don’t have yet any [basis] to imagine, let’s make the character continue in the black, so instead of the actor digitally create a abstraction to what is outside, we decided to put black curtains [up on the set]…

Joana Hadjithomas: Black sheets in all the buildings and the street, so the actors really walked into blackness.

Khalil Joriege: So it was a few hundred dollars of black sheets that were there and that we had to clean from one shot to another, but it was fun. [laughs] You had the feeling that something is happening that you are experimenting.

Joana Hadjithomas: For example, the scene where [Maya and her boyfriend] are kissing in the car, we burned [the edges of] some images, and we weren’t directly using the material of the film. We always work with the same editor [Tina Baz], [who’s] been with us from the start and we do all our work with her [both] fiction films but also artistic experimentation, so she knows exactly what we do. The editing room starts to become like a lab — we burn something, we record voiceovers, we cut…so it’s a lot about the sensuality and the materiality of the films, to bring back pleasure because art is something that can be very joyful and give you a lot of sensation.

I just loved how tactile it was. And you were cutting this together while there was unrest in Lebanon – you talk about joy, but was that weighing on you heavily as you put this together?

Joana Hadjithomas: It was very difficult because we finished shooting in 2019 and suddenly, the economic collapse and the revolution in Lebanon started in the fall of the same year and it ended up tragically in the explosion of August 4th. The set up you see in the bar [for one of the later scenes in the film] got totally destroyed.

Khalil Joriege: And our house, we were there actually…

Joana Hadjithomas: So how do you end this film where it’s supposed to give a [feeling of] coming back to Beirut and spending this night with her friend, even if we just know it’s one night but this illusion that things are back [to normal]? We thought about it a lot with everyone that was working on the film and we felt that we should continue this idea of cycles — of catastrophe and regeneration — because there’s no other message that you can say. The song at the end it summarizes it all when it says, “There will be light in a way and there’s no light now.”

Khalil Joriege: Also because cinema takes time, and it’s a specific [moment] that we are shooting, it was surreal [seeing] the harbor that explodes [in real life], so for us, this idea of [reflecting it in] the songs going up and down, you can see it going up – or going down, it depends on the mood — this is what we experienced because actually there was our production house, our studio and our house are all exactly in that place and a lot of people came and helped us. There was this sentence in the film that “Everything is rebuilt” and if you go today in Lebanon, a lot of things are rebuilt, but it’s not just the facade. What is left is a kind of intensity in the relation we have between us.

Joana Hadjithomas: It’s friendship in a way, something about love that brings people together in crisis.

You capture that spirit so well. What’s it been like to take this around the world this past year?

Joana Hadjithomas: It was an incredible journey after all we were talking about. Of course, there’s COVID and it’s been difficult to show the film, but when the film was selected to show in Berlin in competition, we knew that the film will find its audience and what is incredible is to see that even if you shoot a film in Lebanon, it’s a very personal story and it resonates in so many places all over the world with so many people that reappropriate the film for themselves. It was very moving when people would say, “I’m going to call my mother right now. I want to bring her to see the film. I’m coming back with my daughter. I’m coming back with my brother.” It was really very emotional and there were so many levels that we could talk about and when you get to go back to show the film with audiences, you understand how much it’s important and necessary this moment of sharing is, to be in a cinema and talk after the film.

Khalil Joriege: To breathe together.

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