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Danielle Arbid

Danielle Arbid works at the heart of feelings, from one film to the next, the most recent Simple Passion (2021) based on Annie Ernaux embodies the quintessence of this. Less well-known is a more intimate, long-term filmic work entitled Ma famille libanaise. The series began with Conversations de salon I & II (2004), I give my heart a medal for letting go of you is the last chapter. This series creates a kind of episodic diary, as she feels the need to explore her relationships with those closest to her (father, mother, brothers, lovers, etc.). With no agenda and no rules other than those imposed by each film, from which she sometimes draws the threads to reveal the intimate effects of the upheavals of history. The starting point of this ninth opus is a photo intended for a lover and never sent. A real event? One assumes so, bearing in mind this phrase heard on the fly, evoking her favourite subject, this space between memory and reinvention, “until I can no longer decipher the border between projection and memory”. The tone is set and little more is revealed about this love story, announced as the premise of the film. Carried by a love of words and storytelling, Danielle Arbid opens up the recesses of her memory – from her childhood in Beirut to her exile in Paris due to the war, her relationship with her parents, her lovers… A retrospective gaze which goes round in circles, with the recurrence and digressions of a life torn to shreds. From woman to child and back again, an enchanted criss-crossing of time and identity unfolds. Of such an undertaking she thwarts the expectations, as demonstrated by the work on the very material of the images and voices. It is a paradoxical plunge for an exercise in self-construction in which her character takes shape.
(Nicolas Feodoroff)

Interview with Danielle Arbid

We’re familiar with your feature films, including the latest one based on Annie Ernaux’s Simple Passion, which came out in 2020. Je donne à mon cœur une médaille pour t’avoir oublié (I give my heart a medal for letting go of you), is a continuation of your more intimate series, focused on your nearest and dearest, aptly named Ma Famille Libanaise (My Lebanese Family). Could you retrace the origins of this long-term project?

Je donne à mon cœur une médaille pour t’avoir oublié (I give my heart a medal for letting go of you) is part of this series. This is the latest one. These are films that I compose over time, in between two features. A collection that flirts with the genre in which I portray an intimate world, my beloved, distant world… There are nine now.
Nine films which I direct and often produce myself. I have also worked as director of photography, sound engineer and sometimes editor. I have shot them on various media: Super 8, mini dv, beta num, with a phone, a camera, but rarely show them.
This set of video essays that I continue to make, gives me a formal opportunity to experiment, a freedom to work on different storytelling possibilities. But above all, through them I try to reconstruct my family and Lebanon, which are fading away in my memory, like a boat on the horizon, with its wrath and beauty.
My own personal war chest…

Starting with a found photograph, you revisit an intimate episode. Why did you feel the need to do this?

There was no particular need.
Through this series of videos, I’m aware that I’m exposing my family, that I’m exposing us, in the form of confessions that are sometimes raw. And so I made my own self-portrait so that I could join this risky line-up… In these essays, I try to be as sincere as I am free and inventive.
This self-portrait is a mixture of who I am now and who I was as a child. I wanted to draw on my memories, to fill in the gaps in my memory. More pragmatically, I thought I would choose specific dates – when I was ten, eighteen, and twenty-three – dates that were significant for me.
Moreover, I often film naked people in my films, and I thought that perhaps this time I should turn the camera on myself – and thereby expose myself, because a self-portrait must be a naked, stripped back portrait. It started with a photo I took of myself, at 50, a year and a half ago, around which I created the story.

In the film you also go into the details of your childhood, your life. Why do you go back in time on this occasion?

Starting with myself in order to reach others, remains my guiding principle in film-making. My feature films are already pretty autobiographical. But here, I am part of the series of My Lebanese Family, a more intimate and experimental work. And if I am here today, it is thanks to the sum of my experiences, hence this obligatory return to the past.

You put yourself on the screen with a kind of head-on attitude. How did you end up making this choice?
I see my films as a way of pushing my limits. Making videos and fictions, trying out new ways of filming and editing each time, finding different sounds – it’s also an opportunity to take risks. The idea is not to tell my life story: it’s to present a formal entity, based on meaning.
I think you have to expose yourself. From the moment I put people at risk in my films and videos in a way, I tell myself that I too must expose myself. I can’t imagine a film without a form of risk. For me, film-making is still like playing at a casino, with chance.

And these experiments are apparent here, notably with the very pronounced work on the material quality of the images.

I tried to dirty Super 8 images that I had by digitising them in a hit-and-miss device. I then superimposed them on more recent images to create a certain poetry. This self-portrait is a mixture of video, Super 8 and phone images. Even the credits are made on Instagram. There are also some Google Earth shots too.
I don’t like naturalism, I prefer to approach reality in a whimsical way, and it is through my video essays that I am most comfortable doing so. Describing, making an inventory, cataloguing, photographing, remembering is a game I can’t get enough of.
After a film like this one, it takes time: it doesn’t come right away. It’s like embroidery. It takes me months to try out images. It’s also a way of directing without having to use a crew. On a feature film, I’m surrounded by people. Here, I shoot and edit practically on my own or, in the case of this self-portrait, with Clément Pinteaux, my video editor, so that I can also benefit from his precious eye.

How and when did the text come about? And the choice to only use your voice?

With film, I have always felt it necessary to start from myself in order to reach others… The story is certainly important, but first I think about the form: how to present a shot? How to film it and how to light it? I also try to push this idea when I’m editing, to compose layers of interpretation.
With the self-portrait, my voice and body were the tools I used to achieve this. I simply wanted to tell the story, and express myself in French.
Each video in My Lebanese Family is different: there are films without sound, there are films in Arabic, films with just subtitles. This film is the first one in French, because I feel spontaneously from here, whereas the other members of my family have stayed back there. I wouldn’t allow myself to impose French on them. So, it’s in French, because I consider myself as French as Lebanese.

The narrative is also complex and we hear you say, in the course of a sentence, that you do not tell the difference between your projections and your memories. Is this a clue for this film?

Yes… In the fiction films, I already combine memories and fabricated memories – since I have no certainty of having lived them. This is the very principle of cinema – it fills in the gaps, it projects a world that is not a certainty, but which replaces the real thing. In fact, it makes the past dream and distorts the present – total subjectivity that I accept wholeheartedly.
What is reality anyway? I don’t know which Almodovar film it is where a character shouts “reality should be forbidden”. Reality doesn’t exist, it passes through the prism of our experience, of who we are, of what we see, of our traumas and our relationships.

Interview by Nicolas Feodoroff

  • CNAP Award  
  • Flash Competition

Technical sheet

France / 2021 / Cellular phone, DVCAM, 8 mm / 14’

Original version : french
Subtitles : english
Script : Danielle Arbid
Photography : Danielle Arbid.
Editing : Danielle Arbid, Clément Pinteaux
Sound : Danielle Arbid

Production : Danielle Arbid.

Filmography :
Allô Chérie, 2015-2022
Passion Simple, 2020
Souvenirs de violence, 2019
Blackjack, 2018
Parisienne (Peur de rien), 2015
Beyrouth hôtel, 2011
Conversation de salon 4, 5 et 6, 2009
This smell of sex, 2008
Un homme perdu, 2007
Conversation de Salon 1, 2 et 3, 2004
Nous / Nihna, 2004
In the battlefields, 2004
Aux frontières, 2002
Étrangère, 2002
Seule avec la guerre, 2000
Le passeur, 1999
Raddem, 1998.