A version of this interview with ‘Memory Box’ directors Joana Hadjithomas and Khalil Joreige first appeared in the International issue of TheWrap’s awards magazine.
In Memory Box, a teenage girl in Montreal is transfixed when she discovers a box full of notebooks, audio tapes and photographs made by her mother during the civil war in Lebanon during the 1980s. Joana Hadjithomas and Khalil Joreige, who also work as visual and video artists, used Hadjithomas’ real notebooks from that time to inspire the story; many of those notebooks appear in the film, along with photographs taken by Joreige. The film is Lebanon’s Oscar entry.
An opening credit says your film was loosely adapted from real events. How did that work?
JOANA HADJITHOMAS The film is a fiction. It’s not the story of my life or my parents or anything like that. But it is based on notebooks that I wrote to my best friend in the ’80s. She had to leave Lebanon to live in Paris during the civil war, and we promised to write every day to each other. And we did so for six years. We recorded tapes and sent images. And then we lost contact for more than 25 years. But when we met again, it was very strange because she had kept everything and I had kept everything. So we exchanged them, and I had this strange personal file. Kahlil and I thought it would be interesting to do something with them, but we didn’t really know what we would do.
KHALIL JOREIGE We have a daughter, and she was really interested in reading the notebooks of her mother. But after she read them, she noticed that there was a certain distance between what Joana told her and what was in the notebooks. And we thought, maybe it was not a very good idea that our daughter, a teenage growing girl…
HADJITHOMAS … would read them. But we liked the idea of a teenager far from a country and a situation, reading and imagining her mother as a teenager.
How did you shape the story that would go with that premise and with the notebooks?
HADJITHOMAS Very quickly, we had the idea of a daughter who is reading the hidden past of her mother, because this seems to be universal. But for the first time, we worked with a script writer. We felt we needed some distance—we needed someone who’d never been to Beirut and didn’t know anything about the civil war.
JOREIGE It was a very long process from when we received this incredible archive. We are also artists, and there was the possibility of turning this into an art project, but we suddenly realized how different the daily writing was from what was left in Joana’s memory of her and what she told us.
HADJITHOMAS One of the motivations was because we are artists and filmmakers, and we feel that those worlds don’t communicate a lot. There was this challenge of making a film that was very accessible but also with a lot of artistic experimentation.
It is simultaneously an accessible film and an adventurous one. Was it tricky to find that blend?
HADJITHOMAS Yes, it was. We really wanted to talk about transmission and the way we can try to leave the past behind us.
JOREIGE The film was distributed in several countries worldwide, and we noticed how this story of transmission was something that people can share across generations and places. People consider this their story—we heard that a lot. Of course, for the Lebanese, it was on another level. While we were dealing with our pasts, we suddenly realized that because of the context, we were also dealing with our present. In the editing room, we would wonder, “Is this present or past? Is the past echoing our present?” Ideas evolved during the edit.
HADJITHOMAS While we were shooting the film we had a very close relationship with archeology because we were also doing an artistic project related to archeology and geology. And in this film we had the impression of digging in the past, but also of all these cycles of catastrophe and regeneration that you see in geology. The story started to become a palimpsest in our minds — an accumulation of stories and details and moments and music that gives you this impression of reconnecting with something from your past.