BEIRUT: Joana Hadjithomas recalls having to say goodbye to her best friend. It was 1982, not a good year in Lebanon’s 1975-90 Civil War, and her pal’s family were relocating to Paris.
“We promised that we’d write each other every day,” the artist-filmmaker says during a phone call from Paris. “We did that for six years. Every day we recorded tapes with music and sounds and sent letters. At the end of the ’80s we lost track of each other for 25 years. When we met again a few years ago, she said, ‘I kept everything.’ I did too. So we exchanged our correspondence.
“It was so strange to dig into all those years, to discover how your personal story is rewritten in your mind. Our daughter Alia is now the age I was when my friend and I started writing to each other. Alia wanted to read them. I was hesitant,” Hadjithomas laughs. “So Khalil and I thought this could be a good story.”
When the Berlin International Film Festival opens Monday, its competition lineup will include something it hasn’t had in almost 40 years – a Lebanese feature. “Memory Box,” co-directed by Hadjithomas and her partner-collaborator Khalil Joreige, was completed in 2020, just in time to collide with COVID-19.
Berlinale 70 was the last major film event to run its course before the pandemic drove most of 2020’s festivals to postpone, cancel or flee online. Berlinale 71 will exist in two halves. Postponed by a couple of weeks, the industry component will run 1-5 March as an online event. Festival films will be made available to the public 9-20 June, in hopes that by that point it’ll be possible to project at least part of the program to the public live, in real space.
“The story of ‘Memory Box’ starts in Montreal today, then there’s a back-and-forth between Beirut of the ’80s and today,” Hadjithomas explains. “It’s not the real Beirut of the ’80s, but Beirut as imagined by Alex, a teenage character who doesn’t know Beirut or the ’80s or what it means to live in a civil war.
“At that time we couldn’t go out a lot. We were a lot in the shelter, so I had a lot of time and I wrote a lot,” she chuckles. “The notebooks are very precise, day-by-day accounts, but it’s strange because you don’t really learn what’s going on outside. There’s our daily lives, but not the big picture of the war.
“It’s strange, hearing your voice when you’re 13 or 14. You soon have a love-hate relationship with yourself. I was like, ‘I’m not so interesting.’ I’d fantasized something else about myself. At the same time it’s already totally me, with my obsessions.”
Hadjithomas’ correspondence provides half the archive “Memory Box” fictionalizes. The other half comes from Joreige’s photography.
“He started taking pictures when he was 13 or 14 and took many photos at that time, especially at the end of the end of the ’80s,” she says. “We were interested in building a fiction from the dialogue of my writings and his pictures of that time.”
The last Lebanese film to screen in the Berlinale competition, in 1982, was Borhane Alaouié’s “Beirut the Encounter,” which had premiered in Venice the previous year. It recounts the story of a man and a woman living on either side of a divided city and their frustrated efforts to see each other after a long separation. As she’s about to relocate to Paris, they decide to share their inner lives via cassette tapes and exchange them before she leaves.
“Memory Box” is also a tale of mediated communication, albeit a more elaborate one. One Christmas Eve in snowbound Montreal, a mother and daughter receive a package stuffed with the mother’s decades-old correspondence with her best friend, who had migrated from Beirut to Paris in the 1980s. Maia (Rim Turki) wants nothing to do with the jumble of journals, tapes and photos she’d filled during Lebanon’s Civil War years. Her daughter Alex (Paloma Vauthier), who is innocent of those conflicted years and of her mom’s adolescent life, dives in.
What unfolds promises to be a story about the transmission and reception of stories and the nature of photography, which have long been motifs in Hadjithomas and Joreige’s contemporary art practice.
“It was very important that the film remains relevant after everything that happened” in 2020, says Joreige, noting that, though it was shot well before COVID descended, the plot of “Memory Box” is that of a COVID film.
“It’s two women stuck in a snow storm on Christmas Eve,” he says.
“They have to stay home, so the teenager begins to dig through her mother’s past,” she adds.
“Which is actually what everyone did during the confinement,” he concludes. “They went back to their archives.”
The film is interested the difference between what photography was in the 1980s (a mechanical-chemical process) and the carefree digital pastime it is now.
“The thing about photography in the ’80s is, it was very expensive,” Joreige says. “I wasn’t shooting so much, though there’s a lot of pictures. It’s not like today, where you’re making thousands of pictures for free ... I have an archive of 50,000 pictures. I notice that my daughter takes that many [on her mobile] in six months.
“My relationship to photography was rooted in seeing how our gaze was evolving in relation to how we were portraying the city’s changes, our society, our friends and so on.
“The question of the selfie, the private, the public, the relationship to the body, to the city, to the destruction, to what you can perceive as war or not, what is spectacular or not – all those questions are at the core of our interrogation of images and their presentation.”
“Alex, for example,” Hadjithomas adds, “she takes pictures of the notebooks and reads them on her phone. She animates the pictures on her phone. There’s this connection between reactivating the past in today’s world, using today’s technology. This is important research for us.”
Though the filmmakers’ contemporary art practice promises to be very present in “Memory Box,” audiences won’t have to take a crash course in their past work to follow the film.
“The film is very accessible – the story, the emotions and such. It’s a story that many generations could see and, I think, like,” Hadjithomas says, “but for people who know a bit about our art, they’ll immediately connect. In contemporary art you have this idea of something that’s inaccessible. So it was interesting to revisit some of our experiments in a film that is very accessible.”
“Much of our work is about narration,” Joreige adds. “How do you tell a story? Is there a shared history? How do you tell a story when there is no shared history?”
“It’s about transmission as well,” says Hadjithomas. “What do you transmit to your children? What kind of person were you in your teenage years? What kind of dreams did you have? What did you achieve? Did you lose yourself along the way?”
“You can lose contact with yourself sometimes.”
For more about Berlinale 71, see https://www.berlinale.de/en/home.html