Joana Hadjithomas & Khalil Joreige
Against forgetting – Stories from Lebanon
Essay by Jean Perret
Anyone who has experienced war tells stories from a different perspective: the eye is more sensitive, more finely reflective and reacts more strongly to what was and what is. Joana Hadjithomas and Khalil Joreige have been practising this kind of extraordinary perception for 25 years. The films, photographs and installations by the Lebanese artist couple have questioned the role of images and memories as they pertain to the horrifying history of their native country, and to this day they have pursued their narratives with curiosity and the courage to cross boundaries. Their visit to the Thinking/Space opens up a great opportunity to get to know their deeply personal, political and at the same time poetic oeuvre from the direct perspective of the creators.
The works of Joana Hadjithomas and Khalil Joreige, both born in Beirut in the summer of 1969 and raised during the Lebanese civil war (1975-1990), dig up traces of the history of a country that to this day is marked by war, assassinations, corruption and Mafia-like politics. They studied literature – not art or filmmaking – in Paris, and in 1989/90 they shot their first film, which dealt with the devastation of war and the huge ruins in Lebanon. From the outset, and guided by a sense of urgency, they campaigned against the amnesia repeatedly staged by the Lebanese authorities, whose consequences include harrowing events such as the catastrophic explosion in the port of Beirut on 4 August 2020, or the murder of people like the filmmaker, editor and activist Lokman Slim on 4 February 2021.
The resulting chaos allows those responsible to go unpunished, but it also calls for downright radical aesthetic, poetic and political gestures. Such gestures are provided in an admirable way by Joana Hadjithomas and Khalil Joreige: they enable the processing of historical traumas by bringing truths to light, closing gaps in our collective memory and thereby showing us a possible path into the future.
One of their recent works, an installation at the Centre Pompidou in Paris (which won the Prix Marcel Duchamp in the autumn of 2017), consisted of cylindrical drill samples taken from various construction sites in Beirut, Athens and Paris. The installation, entitled "Time Capsulesnconformities", showed the layers of soil in long glass tubes as representations of a deep underground. They bore witness to the transformations, constructions and destruction of bygone times, as well as to geological and human disasters. Together with experts from the fields of geology, archaeology, history and urban planning, Joana Hadjithomas and Khalil Joreige revealed the remains of a buried past in all its fascinating continuity and fractures. It is precisely these kinds of long-term movements that the earth silently hides within itself as layers of order and disorder; it is this unexpected spectacle of materials, densities and colours that the two artists question with their camera.
The precious samples from the darkness of earth brought palimpsests to light, which are emblematic for the entire oeuvre by Joana Hadjithomas and Khalil Joreige. The aim of the two filmmakers is to extract the forgotten, erased, retained and hidden evidence from the meanders of past and present history, in order to change patterns of thinking as well as individual and collective consciousness and uncover memories.
In addition to numerous group and solo exhibitions, publications and teaching positions, their output over the past 25 years has included around a dozen films. Fiction and documentary films are made side by side, from Around the Pink House (1999), a political comedy about the reconstruction of post-war Lebanon, to Khiam (2000-2007) with its testimonies of people who were tortured in a prison in southern Lebanon. Or from The Lost Film (2003), which searches for a stolen copy of Around the Pink House that might have fallen victim to Yemeni censorship, to I Want to See (2008), in which the film legend Catherine Deneuve and the famous Lebanese actor Rabih Mroué journey to locations that were devastated during the war in southern Lebanon in 2006 and encounter moments of truth. For example, when Mroué would like to show her his parental home, but it is in ruins and will remain destroyed forever. In A Perfect Day (2005), the filmmakers confront their improvising cast with everyday situations in a Beirut that is hesitant to recover from the civil war. Even their short films deserve attention: Barmeh (2002), Ashes (2003) and Don't Walk (2004). The medium length Ismyrne (2016) focuses on a conversation between Joana Hadjithomas and the poet and painter Etel Adnan about their genealogical and imaginary connections to Smyrna, a Turkish city that didn't offer either of them a place to stay. The film reveals the autobiographical dimension that is inherent in the works of the filmmakers. This is also true of their latest film, a fast-paced fiction film that was shown in the competition programme of the Berlin Film Festival. The eponymous Memory Box (2021) brings to light a thousand fragments of intimate stories, which were repressed in painful self-denial – again using the disasters that tore Lebanon apart as a backdrop. For example, the terrible civil war, in which countless religious and political groups fought each other, carried out various massacres and forced over 800,000 people to flee.
The couple's cinematic oeuvre, with its cross-references between the past and the present, feels contemporary precisely because it doesn't adhere to established genres such as documentary, fiction or experiment. The films tell true stories with great inventiveness and with a rigorous and playful lightheartedness. The things they concern themselves with are urgent, but the two filmmakers never engage in univocal or categorical discourses. Their preferred way of taking a stand is that of an essay – Joana Hadjithomas and Khalil Joreige create an awareness and memory of Lebanese stories that have been suppressed for decades by the country's reactionary and regressive forces. And therein lies the universal quality of their films: standing up for speaking the unspoken has exemplary value far beyond Lebanon.
In one of their installations, entitled "Le Cercle de la Confusion", which was shown in several locations in 1997, they invited the visitors to remove one of 3000 magnetic tiles that made up a huge aerial view of Beirut. "Beirut does not exist" it said on the back of each fragment. Little by little, the city disappeared, revealing a huge mirror in which everyone could see themselves. In this way, everyone was a part of this city – which was emblematic for cities and cultures all around the world – and able recognise their own humanity.