Beirut blast 'collapsed world' of Berlin film fest contenders

By: AFP      Published: 05:36 PM, 1 Mar, 2021
Beirut blast 'collapsed world' of Berlin film fest contenders

The Berlin film festival kicked off online Monday with a premiere from a Lebanese couple who had to overcome both Beirut's devastating port blast and the pandemic to bring their movie to the screen.

"Memory Box" by Joana Hadjithomas and Khalil Joreige is one of 15 films vying for the Golden Bear top prize Friday at the 71st Berlinale, the first major European cinema showcase of the year.

Like Sundance this winter, the event has gone all-virtual as the global movie industry tries to keep new releases ticking over with entertainment-starved audiences stuck at home and movie theatres shuttered.

"Memory Box" is the first Lebanese contender in the Berlinale competition in four decades.

It is based on the true story of the discovery more than 30 years later of a collection of letters, notebooks and mixtapes Hadjithomas sent to a friend in Paris as a teenager in the 1980s during Lebanon's civil war.

In the movie, the mysterious package arrives at the Montreal home of Maia, who emigrated to Canada, and her teenage daughter Alex in the middle of a blinding blizzard.

The time capsule from her own adolescence spurs Maia to begin sharing long-held secrets about her shattering wartime experiences.

Not just trauma

"It's sometimes our kids who make us return to something that we just don't want to see or that we refuse to experience anymore," Hadjithomas, 51, told AFP via Zoom from Paris, the couple's second home.

"We are not sharing a common history in Lebanon and after the war we did not reconnect as a community, so this is partly why we try to work with art and films to question this issue."

Hadjithomas and Joreige's work has drawn international acclaim and has been featured at Cannes, the Tate Modern, Centre Pompidou and New York's MoMA.

"Memory Box" includes flashbacks of 1980s Beirut, but the fighting largely serves as the backdrop to a portrait of youth chasing romance and escape in one of the Middle East's most vibrant cities.

"What was important was not just to show civil war and the trauma -- it's a generation that also wanted to live, to love, to dream," Hadjithomas said.

She and her husband were working on the film in Beirut at the time of the explosion of hundreds of tonnes of ammonium nitrate fertiliser on August 4 that killed more than 200 people, injured thousands and ravaged swathes of the capital.

Their apartment, art studio and production company are close to the port, Hajithomas said. 

"So when the blast happened it destroyed the three places that were home to us in Lebanon," she added.

"I was in a cafe very close by and it was very traumatic, so we took time to recover. But we don't want to recover this time. We don't want to be resilient, all of us, we just want accountability."

Hope for June

The couple said the blast triggered wartime memories, while the Covid-19 outbreak created tough hurdles for the filming and post-production work.

Joreige, 52, said there were eerie parallels between the filmmaking and the world outside.

"This film is about confinement, two women blocked because of the storm, but you can see it today as the confinement because of the pandemic," he said.

"And then all of our world collapsed with the blast and the film was still echoing our present."

Coronavirus has robbed the couple of the chance for now to walk the Berlinale's red carpet. Festival organisers hope to stage public screenings and a gala awards ceremony in June if pandemic conditions permit.

"It's very difficult because we haven't even shared the film with our crew, our team, our actors, and now the audience," Hadjithomas said.

"But we are also happy to be part of the competition with other filmmakers that we love, that we respect. And we really hope for June! Everyone will be there and it will be great."