In a small way, “Go Home” reflects the life of writer-director Jihane Chouaib. Born in Lebanon, but raised in Mexico, she found her family home in a similar state of disarray to that of the film’s main character, Nada, as she returns to her homeland and attempts to unearth family secrets and remove the shroud of secrecy around the fate of her grandfather in the 90-minute feature.
“You feel that when a house has been desecrated, you feel that it’s yourself that has been violated, so that experience was at the root of the film,” Chouaib told the Queen Anne & Magnolia News last week.
Chouaib sat down with us while in Seattle for a screening of her film — which earned award nominations at film festivals in Dubai, Edinburgh, Munich, and Busan — at SIFF Cinema Uptown, as part of the annual French Cinema Now mini-festival.
Q: How much of your own experiences — being born in Lebanon and returning — did you put into this film?
Chouaib: The film is not autobiographical, but I guess my experience was useful. I wouldn’t have made that film if I hadn’t had that kind of experience. Mainly, it was the family house, because we had one that was in that state during the war and I rediscovered it after the war in that state, and you feel that when a house has been desecrated, you feel that it’s yourself that has been violated, so it that experience was at the root of the film. But besides that, no. I don’t have a disappeared grandfather, for example.
Q: You both wrote and directed, while a lot of writers will create their piece and then hand it off to someone else to take care of the latter. Why did you decide to see it through to the end?
Chouaib: In fact, in France it’s different, because in France a lot of directors write their own films. Even if sometimes they shouldn’t, because some scriptwriters are really better at that job, but in France we feel that we are a complete director if we write. It’s that kind of mind-frame, so it was natural to do that, I think. I come from writing, but when I was a teenager I wrote a lot and there was a time I felt that I was writing images. I was trying to imagine a film, I think, so that was natural for me.
Q: Were there any points when you were directing where you saw your actors playing out a scene, and went, ‘This doesn’t feel right, or something needs to be tweaked or changed from how I envisioned it?’
Chouaib: All the time, I mean that’s directing, it’s just all the time, especially in Lebanon, because there’s lots of things you can’t control beforehand, so there’s a lot of accepting the course of reality, so there’s a lot of things that don’t work in the way you wanted them to, and you have to find another solution, and yeah, all the time. Every minute.
Q: Are there any specific changes that you think made the film better that you wouldn’t have thought of unless you encountered a problem?
Chouaib: That’s an interesting question. Yeah, I think, Golshifteh [Farahani], the main actress, she was much more emotional and sweet than I had envisioned writing, and that was, I think, a very good change. She brought that with her, and it was obvious at the moment that it was right, and that was unexpected and very right.
Q: What was the biggest challenge you faced over the course of production?
Chouaib: I think everything. Every stage of the making of the film, there was a challenge. I can’t really say one. In France, the way the films are shown in theatres is changing now, so that’s a challenge. And that’s the challenge of now, because before the art house films had lots of venues to show, and there are less and less, and more and more films and less and less venues for that kind of film. So that’s the difficulty right now.
Q: How rewarding has it been to get “Go Home” into film festivals and to travel to places like Seattle to screen it?
Chouaib: I love it. I love it because the reactions are different each time, and it’s a way for me to enter into the mindset of different people, and understand different ways of seeing that film, but then different ways of seeing reality in general. It’s really, really interesting for me. There’s something very emotional lots of times in the feedback I get, and I’m very moved and proud of that because especially when you’re in that kind of situation of being in exile, a refugee, a war refugee, and you feel that your country almost doesn’t exist because it’s so inaccessible for so many years, and then you feel that you can’t really connect with other people because they don’t know what it is to have lost a country and to have lost a childhood land. And then, when you get that kind of feedback, you feel like, no, you can connect. Our imaginations and our feelings can connect with experiences as different as me, or here in Seattle, or in Busan in Korea, for example. We had three screenings in the Busan Film Festival, each time I think 400 or 500 people, and the feedback, the questions were really interesting and moving, and I never would have thought that was possible.
Q: Have you noticed the feedback being different in the different places you go to?
Chouaib: Definitely, yes. Because in Europe, for example, the feedback is, there are lots of questions about the political situation in the Middle East, and lots of people who think they know what’s the situation and want the debate to be about that. In Asia, for example, maybe because in Busan they felt that the film was Iranian and there’s a real cinematograph in Iran, and you have the right to make art films in Iran, you don’t have to make political films, you can make just films. So in Busan, in Korea, they told me a lot about the artistic side, and the shape of the film, the aesthetic choices, and also they saw like hidden meaning and more complex relationships. It was a bit like they saw another film than when I showed it in France or Germany.
Q: And what’s the response been when the film screened in the Middle East?
Chouaib: It’s great. I was really surprised, because, well it’s really an art-house film. I think there’s no … and I even showed it in Dubai with a really local audience. And I didn’t think that in Dubai that the film would connect, and I was so wrong, because there are a lot of expats in Dubai, and really in all the middle east, people move a lot, so there’s a lot of, well people that connected on that part, being exiled and going home, etc. Yeah, I showed it in Jordan also, and it was an outside screening, in the open, and I was really, I thought, that’s a big mistake, why are they doing that, because you could hear the honks and the music from the cars that were passing, but even like that, yeah, people connected very much. I think it’s more an emotional response there, in Jordan or Dubai. Also, they feel that it’s the first time a film speaks about the post-war problems of wanting to forget but needing to not forget, so that was an important part, and we will have a theatrical release in all the Middle East.
Q: The film makes the use of flashback throughout to fill in the backstory. How did you come to the decision to use that as the element to tell the secondary story informing the present?
Chouaib: I never really felt when I was writing it, I didn’t feel that it was flashbacks, I felt it was memories. And the difference for me is that we are never sure that what we see in the scenes from the past, the scenes with children, we’re never sure that it’s true. And that for me is the nature of memories, you can almost invent a memory. You can make it up. That was very important for me because I think it’s one of the main things for me in the film was the link with childhood, and the childhood memory. What is a childhood memory? And the way that it is fundamental for human beings, but at the same time, you’re never really sure if it’s true or not, if it happened that way or you were told something or you saw later on something else that made that memory kind of create itself.
Q: What do you think you learned from this creative process, from start to finish, and what comes next for you?
Chouaib: I learned a lot, but I think it’s not very interesting for me to say exactly what, because it’s really about the process of filmmaking. I learned from all my mistakes, and from all the things that happened in a beautiful way that I didn’t expect. That’s my internal process. … For the next film, the writing, I’m writing two films now, and I want the writing to be much more simple, because I want to experiment more on the filmmaking, and I think, so that’s the main thing I learned, to make it a bit more simple.
Q: Is there anything else you’d like to add?
Chouaib: I would like to say to the future viewers to try to look at it, maybe forgetting a bit about Lebanon, and the political situation. Because I think when you look at it without that, like in Korea for example, because there they don’t care about the Middle East at all, they don’t even know it exists, then you can see lots of other things in the film that move in the film, and for me, may be more important.
For more information on “Go Home,” visit www.facebook.com/gohomefeaturefilm/.