While Marianne Khoury grew up in a family steeped in the cinema business, she initially embarked on a career in banking before she was drawn into filmmaking. Khoury first ventured into films when her uncle, the legendary director Youssef Chahine asked her to be the executive producer of his film Eskenderiah Leh (Why Alexandria?) and has been in cinema ever since. Her last feature documentary, Let’s Talk, recently won the Audience Award at the 2019 Cairo International Film Festival (CIFF) and is set to screen in theaters soon. eniGma’s Chairman, Samia Farid Shihata, sat down with Khoury to learn more about her career and the intriguing story behind her award-winning film.
Since her youth, Khoury seems to have had a camera always in hand to film important, as well as innocuous, moments of her family’s life. So, when Khoury, now an established filmmaker, decided to make a feature documentary focusing on the women in her family, she already had a treasure trove of material she had filmed over the years. Her uncle, Youssef Chahine, also provided her with tapes of his own mother, Khoury’s grandmother, which he had recorded in the seventies.
The documentary Khoury wanted to make was more than a simple look at the generations of women in the family. Whenever she looked back, she had always felt a need to explore, in particular, a deep-seated sadness that seemed to have affected her mother, despite her outward appearance of living a life full of joy and contentment. Khoury was anxious to understand this thread of melancholy, which she came to realise had been passed on from her mother to her and from her to her own daughter.
In 2010, Khoury had finished her last film Zelaal, also a feature documentary, and was thinking about her next film. “First, I had to decide what the film would be about, and second, how would I do it? Deciding on the first question took a long time. Would it be about my mother, or about me or about my daughter? I started to organise workshops on self-development and filmmaking related to self-reference; and these helped make things clearer in my head. But the immediate trigger that led me to actively embark on making Let’s Talk, was my daughter Sara. It was due to her that I felt that I really needed to make this film,” Khoury recalls.
During a workshop focusing on filmmaking from archives, Khoury had to write a letter in film to her deceased mother. “That letter meant that I would need to open myself up and to listen to my own voice, which is something that I hadn’t done before. At that time my daughter Sara had returned to Egypt after finishing her film studies at university in Paris and was looking forward to starting to work here,” Khoury recalls. “She couldn’t cope with the aggressive atmosphere she found here, and she went into a deep depression. Part of the problem seems to have also been that she felt a heavy weight on her shoulders with her whole family so involved in film making. She even started to doubt that she wanted to work in cinema at all. With all the questions running through her mind, I also began to ask myself a lot of questions. I wanted to understand what was happening to her,” she adds. All that was taking place at the same time that Khoury was exploring her archives to write her letter to her mother. That’s when she decided to embark on her film, Let’s Talk.
“Let’s Talk is a feature documentary about our family line of women. The film was basically an effort to understand my daughter, through understanding my mother, my grandmother, and ultimately myself. These women are the heroes of the film.” Khoury explains.
While anchored in a recurring dialogue between Khoury and her daughter, much of the film consists of real footage of the family from Khoury’s rich archives. Khoury also includes excerpts from Chahine’s autobiographical films which help place the film’s real footage in context. This blurring of the line between fact and fiction also adds a subtext to her own uncertainty about her relationship with her mother. On the whole, Khoury’s honest and raw portrayal of the heroines throughout the film, gives it an authenticity that draws viewers in and makes them feel they are a part of this family drama.
As you watch the members of Khoury’s family grow over the years, you inevitably find that you can identify with one or more of them as the story progresses. You get to know Khoury’s attractive mother and see her enjoying her life as a charming carefree socialite loved by everyone around her, before she becomes disinterested and reclusive after her husband’s passing. You get acquainted with Khoury and her brothers Eli and Gaby in their youth; and meet them again as older siblings recounting their memories of their mother. You also get to watch Khoury’s son and daughter as little children innocently discussing their feelings towards their mother. Throughout all that, you are given a precious look at what life was like in “the good old days” in Cairo and Alexandria.
Khoury’s conversations about her mother with her uncle, Youssef Chahine, and with her paternal aunt, who was her mother’s close lifelong friend, took place as far back as 2004, which shows that exploring her mother’s life and tribulations was on her mind long before she thought about making this film. Her aunt’s memories, which included the story of her mother’s marriage, seem to have played an important part in helping Khoury understand her mother and her relationship with her and her brothers.
The film starts with a dialogue between Khoury and her daughter Sara, that took place three years ago in Paris. According to Khoury, it was that conversation that gave her the clarity she needed to visualise the film she wanted to do and to actually start the filmmaking process.
“I had been talking to Sara about the film for some time since she had returned to Egypt. She had since left for Paris once again, and I would visit her there often. As soon as I began my visit to her in Paris that time, we started talking and I just found the conversation take off, so I began filming her on my phone. We spent the whole day talking. The day I filmed that conversation, the film became very clear in my mind,” Khoury recalls.
A good part of Khoury’s film, however, revolves around her mother. “She was a very interesting woman, and then she had a very bad depression and lost interest in life in her sixties, maybe earlier even, in her fifties, and she died at 62,” says Khoury. “Of course, she represented many women of her generation, who were talented and full of energy, but were not given the opportunity to do anything outside the home. That was natural at the time. It was also natural that the family would always give priority to her brother, Youssef Chahine. When he wanted to study film and they didn’t have enough money, the whole family, including my mother, made sacrifices for him. It was only natural to do that,” she adds.
Unlike many documentaries, there is no narrator in Let’s Talk. “The way I like to do it, the personalities in the film are the heroes. The family members here are the heroes.” says Khoury, adding, “When you see all the transcripts of the archives, you realise how difficult it was to build the structure. I had to decide on the dosage accorded to each personality in the story. This was the most difficult part.”
Khoury is convinced that making this film helped her understand her daughter better and improved their relationship. That was certainly enough of a reward for Khoury. The fact that the film was chosen to participate in the international competition at the CIFF and went on to win its audience award, came to her as icing on the cake, and she was thrilled and excited.
“I’m very happy with the film; and winning the audience award is making me very very happy!” Khoury exclaims, adding, “My film was the only Egyptian film in the competition. First, it was amazing that Mohamed Hefzy, the CIFF President, was so brave to include a documentary in the international competition. Documentaries are usually not well regarded in film festivals. On top of that, the fact that it won the Audience Award shows that you can entertain people with documentaries. I saw people in the audience laugh and then break down in tears! I had been worried that they wouldn’t understand some of the things in the film, even though they made sense to me. But I found out that the audience understood everything.”