Fictional Archives

Interview with filmmaker Valentin Noujaïm

04.09.2020

The cinematic works of Valentin Noujaïm elegantly question identity, historical memory and migration through personal, fictionalized narratives. Blending archival footage, 3D animation and original footage, his voice and strong positions reflect a new generation of young French artists. Travel - through both space and time - plays a leading role in his works as the basis from which narratives arise. For Where About Now, Jared Marks spoke to the filmmaker and screenwriter about his path towards film, his cinematic worldview and his take on the role of artists today.

Jared Marks Can you tell us a bit about where you’re from and your background?

Valentin Noujaïm Sure, well, my mom is Egyptian and my dad is Lebanese. I grew up in France, in Angers. Both of my parents are Christian Arabs which changes a lot of things in the identity process. Voilá, I think more about my background will come when we talk about the films.

JM True. So how did you actually get interested in film and decide to study that?

VN Growing up I watched a lot of films - I loved horror and teenage movies. Then I got into erotic and porn films which were more intellectual but still trashy. When I saw Pier Paolo Pasolini’s “Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom” as a teenager I got obsessed. I always really liked cinema but didn’t think it was for me - I didn’t think I was able to produce art.

But then I spent a year in Los Angeles working at a cinema. People there encouraged me to go for it so when I came back, I was 21, I decided to try. I went to Berlin and started working for the director Karim Aïnouz, assisting him with his film projects. Over my 2 years in Berlin I started to imagine that I could also do that. I took the entrance exam for La Fémis (the film school in Paris) and got in and that’s when I thought ok, maybe I can do this.

I was never confident or saw myself as an artist - I thought I’d be more on the other side, more administration or finance, but through the experience with Karim I realized that I could also produce art.

JM So what kind of stuff were you doing for him in Berlin?

VN I started out doing mood boards. He would send me a picture and I would create a mood board around it using my own photos. Then I started writing small stories, helping him to develop projects. That’s how I learned to write and to talk about film and also when I realized I wanted to study Screenwriting. The most difficult part of cinema is to write a good screenplay so that’s why I wanted to pursue that.

Still from “Avant d’oublier Heliopolis”, 2018, Valentin Noujaïm

JM Sounds like quite a global story: from Angers to LA and then Berlin.

VN Yeah, and then to Paris too. But it really took me some time - I started studying when I was 23. My parents are not the art types at all, they are more into science. They never stopped me from pursuing film but they didn’t really push me to do something creative either. That’s why it took me some time until I believed I could do that.

JM Well, here you are and you are graduating tomorrow I hear.

VN Yes I'm getting my diploma tomorrow and I’m super happy about that - will be glad to not be a student anymore!

JM I can imagine. Your first film, the documentary, was it a project for school?

VN No, not really. Because I did Screenwriting we mostly had to write screenplays. So the 2 films I did during the 4 years were on my own time. The first one was a documentary, Avant d’oublier Heliopolis and the second was L’Étoile bleue. I’ve been working on a short film, a fiction, the last 2 years and it just got funding - we will shoot it in the autumn so I’m really happy about that.

JM Congratulations for that! So circling back to the documentary, it’s a very personal story about your grandma. How did you come up with the concept and how was her reaction?

VN Well, the film changed a lot from when I wrote it to when I edited it. I went to Egypt without really knowing what I was looking for. I filmed a lot which was kind of difficult in Egypt at that time and well, it still is. But the main idea that always stayed with me and drove me to do the film was 2 things: the first is that my grandma is getting old, she’s 90 and she was starting to lose her memory. The second thing is that she has - and we have - a very complex relationship to the Arab world and to Egypt. Not only in my family, but in most of the Arab Christian families who are part of the diaspora, is this idea that those memories were not part of this world. Not part of the Arab world and identity. They were kind of… others. European memories of an Arab world.

Still from “Avant d’oublier Heliopolis”, 2018, Valentin Noujaïm

I always found it weird and tricky for Christian Arabs, this idea that “we are different from the other Arabs” which is very problematic. It can be explained historically, socially and economically but it’s too complex to talk about it now. I also don’t think my film talks about it - it could be a whole feature film just about the Christian identity in the Arab world. In this film I was asking the question: why are her memories blurry? Is it only because she’s getting old or because she never wanted to have those memories?

Using images from my family’s archive, you see that they were part of the bourgeoisie in Egypt who was really dreaming of Europe, dreaming of being something else which is why she has this complex memory. The film was a kind of personal odyssey into her memories and this kind of weirdness that comes with the Christian Arab identity.

Because she’s so old she didn’t really react to the film. I think she was really happy seeing images of Egypt because she’s never been back, but she had more of an emotional reaction, I think she didn't really get what it was about.

Still from “Avant d’oublier Heliopolis”, 2018, Valentin Noujaïm

JM So do you think after dreaming of Europe, was your family happier when they arrived in France?

VN Well, their social class totally changed. In Egypt they were living with the British in Heliopolis, a city built by the Belgians, which was only for Europeans and Christians. Because the colonials gave Christians privileges, they felt closer to the colonials than to the Muslim Arabs. Their minds were colonized. So arriving in Lyon in a small apartment was probably a shock. Also, she was 50 when she got to France, so quite old already, but now my grandma talks more about Egypt than she did when I was growing up. I think maybe even if she doesn’t realize it, she has some sort of melancholy.

JM That feeling of longing for an unknown place, it ties in nicely with your other film, L’Étoile Bleue. Can you tell us about the premise of the film and also the archival footage you worked with?

Still from “L’Étoile Bleue”, 2019, Valentin Noujaïm

VN Recently I've been obsessed with this idea of a new place, a new world that we can build. In everything I write lately there’s always a character who wants to start a revolution - who wants a new world, not this world. The revolution can come in many different ways but there’s always this tragic story of a character who wants to change the world and start a new one.

JM Like a utopia?

VN Yeah but this utopia can also be a dystopia - it’s not clear which. In L’Étoile Bleue this new place is a star, a blue star, a new planet for this man who doesn’t belong in the world he lives in. When I found the archives from my dad's family I was really triggered by seeing my grandmother and grandfather. My grandmother is French. She is a white blonde lady and my grandfather is Lebanese. They met in France under weird conditions: he was in the Lebanese army and went to France to study and they met. She went back to Lebanon with him, they got married and they had my father. My grandmother learned Arabic and she speaks it fluently. She lived in Lebanon for 25 years so she is a very weird character. When they went back to Lebanon my grandfather had a mission to build a radar in the south of the country against a potential Israeli invasion.

Image from Valentin Noujaïm's mood board
Still from “L’Étoile Bleue”, 2019, Valentin Noujaïm

He had a lot of Super 8mm so he filmed a lot of the construction site as well as his family: his wife and my dad. But I never met him and my grandmother hates him so it was the first time I saw images of them. I was shocked to see this couple - this blonde, very French woman with this Lebanese soldier in the desert building a radar. This whole family looks so weird, you know, in the 60s, and just the image tells so many stories - them in the desert in the middle of the Algerian war. My grandfather was also a strange character, he disappeared a lot and I started to fantasize that maybe when he left he was actually going to a new planet and never came back. I wanted to construct a fiction about this couple using real archival footage. The whole idea developed around this brown man that fell in love with this white woman and he didn’t feel comfortable in the world where they were living, so he wanted to be in a new place where he could be with people like him. The images already looked very sci-fi so I wanted to go with that.

JM It’s interesting that your first film was about your mother’s family and your second one was about your father’s.

VN Ha, yeah, and the third one is about me.

Still from “L’Étoile Bleue”, 2019, Valentin Noujaïm

JM Ah, ok, well I want to hear more about that. But why do you think you go to a very personal place - your family’s stories - for material in creating your films? Why are those such important stories for you to tell?

VN I think it’s very basic, actually. There are a lot of films by an immigrant's son who wants to find out about his roots. I like my film Heliopolis but I realized it’s quite traditional - there are a lot of films made by children of the diaspora about their grandmother and grandfather. Making a film is a way of creating your own narration. Both of my films are very fictionalized and that’s something important to me.

I actually disagree with something you said - that my films are “about'' my grandparents or family. Actually, they are a lot about me. They are auto-fictionalized, it’s how I see their stories. Heliopolis is my gaze on my grandmother's story, L’Étoile Bleue is my gaze on a story that was never really history, a story I invented based on their life. So there is my point of view in both of them - they are very subjective - and that was also my intention. They were never meant to be pure documentary films so I play and mix the footage a lot: in the first one I mix it with 3D animation and the other one I mix it with NASA archival footage. I never saw our family’s archives until quite late, when I got into cinema, and I was really impressed by them. These films were kind of my way of digesting and processing them.

Still from “L’Étoile Bleue”, 2019, Valentin Noujaïm

JM And do you feel that through these films you were able to understand more about your roots or process certain things about these stories?

VN Of course. Going there to film also made me ask a lot of questions about myself. Why do I - with all my privileges growing up in France - need to go back there to film? That’s why I felt safer doing fiction than documentary. In a pure documentary I would have to push this vision that I had of being the son of immigrants and all the complexities of this identity being French and Arab. But I’m not just an Arab - I’m not just that - I’m born in France and have a French education. So going with my own gaze - my fiction - I felt more comfortable to approach these stories.

JM What about your new film? What can we expect?

VN It’s called Les Filles Destinées which means Destiny’s Girls, an homage to Destiny’s Child. It’s a story about three queer POC girls in high school: Eden, an Arab girl who is in love with Crystal, a black girl and their friend Ibtissame. When one of them disappears, the others go looking for her and discover an underworld where the queer POC live forever in an eternal club from where they can never come back. Eden has to decide if she sacrifices her life to rescue her girlfriend or if she finds another way. It’s very much Orpheus but with POC lesbians in France today. And the soundtrack will be by Crystallmess. So it’s again this idea of a new world, an underworld, where they could all live happily and forever.

JM But you don’t know if it’s better or worse. Like in L’Étoile Bleue you also don’t know if it is actually better in the end.

VN Actually in this one you will know, there is a clear ending. But in L’Étoile Bleue, for me, it’s open of course, but for me, the star never existed.

Image from Valentin Noujaïm's mood board
Image from Valentin Noujaïm's mood board

JM So do you think if there is a “blue star” here on earth, does it exist?

VN No, it doesn’t exist.

JM Hm… well, that brings me to my next question. It seems like your work as a filmmaker deals a lot with utopias - imagining alternate worlds and how that affects our lives. What would you say is the role of artists today in this time of health crises, social uprisings and general uncertainty?

VN I think we can do nothing. We can just be good activists and raise our voices. I don’t think artists have a stronger voice than other people, we should just forget about our art and get involved. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t produce art, we just shouldn’t expect art to be a revolutionary act today. But I think artists should be politically involved - in cinema I see a lot of people trying not to be political, that film is just entertaining and beautiful. I think any film is political. The moment you decide to put your camera on one thing and not the other, it’s political. We should question all the images we make, start looking at images as a political act and try to make them revolutionary.

I believe in revolution but I don’t believe in revolution in art itself. I believe in revolution on the streets.

Header image: Valentin Noujaïm, Photo: Alexandra Aean, Styling: Maid Dupuy, Makeup: Louise Chauchat

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