A scene from ''Let's Talk'' movie.
CAIRO - 10 April 2020: Almost a decade in the making, the details of Marianne Khoury’s powerful documentary Let’s Talk pull you inside the life of her cinematic family, leaving viewers with the poignant feeling of living with its members, being part of their clan. By the time the closing credits start to roll, it’s easy to imagine the characters are your relatives, but you’ll be walking away recalling your own family memories.
Let’s Talk is a unique visual and humane insight into the lives of four women from four different generations in the family of the late director Youssef Chahine, Khoury’s uncle.
The award-winning director also manages to draw the link between cinema and life, by
approaching the topic through a conversation between herself as a cinematic mother and her daughter Sara, who is studying filmmaking in Cuba.
They each explore the difficulties and pleasures of life through a series of archive footage that featuring both members of the family as they appear in Chahine’s autobiographical films and the family’s ladies in real life. Egypt Today sits down with Khoury to talk about her unique movie and chat about her vision and plans for the future.
1- You once said Let’s Talk took more than nine years of preparations. Why? Tell us more about the idea behind the movie and its making.
It has taken even longer than nine years. The idea is that throughout my life I was having all the conversations in Let’s Talk, but I was never aware of it. Let’s Talk is based on a huge family archive, it contains a large number of intimate, personal and family moments. I always have the need to record these moments and scenes, moments with my daughter, while I am giving birth, birthdays, Christmas celebrations and marriage anniversaries, I have a strong relationship with the archive. My grandmother used to keep our family archive, and after my mom died I was keen to look after it. I started digitizing the photos to preserve them and I used some in the movie. I love to record certain situations, in 2004 I recorded my conversations with my uncle, the late great
director Youssef Chahine. I also recorded my conversations with my aunt and with different generations from my family. I’d always known that I wanted to make a movie about my mother with this archive, but I wasn’t able to do it psychologically because
the grief I felt over my mother’s loss was too deep. At that time, I was pregnant so I felt the true meaning of life and death at the same time. It was very tough for me and for a long time I lived in a state of denial, refusing to believe that my mother has died. My daughter pushed me to go through my family archive when she started to ask the questions you saw in Let’s Talk. My relationship with my daughter is the same as it appears in the movie, we are friends who discuss a lot of things with each other. Most of the conversation in the movie took place over a single day in France. We switched on the camera and started talking spontaneously, and it was only after we’d finished talking on that day that I felt I had a movie. Psychologically, I hadn’t been able to do this for many years until I talked with my daughter on that day.
2-As a family, how do you describe your relationship with the camera?
Our relationship as a family with the camera is very strong, we use the camera in most of our moments, gatherings and celebrations like in Christmas. Chahine shot with my wedding with the camera, he recorded some of his conversations with his mom on cassette tapes before Alexandria . . . Why? and when he learned that I wanted to make a movie about my mom he gave me this archive. At first my uncle didn’t see me as a director. I’ve been working in the film industry for the past 40 years, mainly as
a producer. Twenty years ago, when the small cameras appeared I was at the Cannes International Film Festival with Chahine, and I watched the movie The Idiot which was shot with a small camera. I used to fear big cameras because I didn’t study cinema, so the small cameras gave me the freedom to shoot what I wanted. Then I directed a short movie at that time, and Chahine said, “Oh girl, you managed to bring all the emotions out!”
3-Who was Youssef Chahine to you? A father, uncle, friend, professor or boss?
He was everything all in one person, all the emotions in one man. I used to fear him, and at the same time I loved and respected him. He gave me kindness and support, we used to discuss everythin. My father died when I was 20, at that time I got very close to my uncle as I started working with him.
4-If he were alive now, what would he think of Let’s Talk?
I feel he would have loved it very much, because the thing that I am happy with the most in this film is that I managed to have an effect on people. The audience who watched
the movie didn’t see it with their eyes only, Let’s Talk found its way into their hearts; they laughed, cried and were influenced by the movie. This was very important to me because people always think that documentaries are so boring, dull and educational.
In Let’s Talk, instead of casting actors I made my family perform their real roles so it became more credible and real. I am happy that I succeeded in creating this mood, that’s why I was over the moon with the audience award that I received from Cairo International Film Festival; I didn’t expect that the film would be so popular with audiences. Before the filmrelease in cinemas in mid-January 15, I gave talks about it
in universities and clubs to encourage people to come and watch the movie, because I knew they would like it.
5- Let’s Talk does have the feel or a reality TV show. Was that intentional? How do you see this contributed to the movie’s success?
I didn’t intend to add this touch but it was made spontaneously, because we weren’t acting in the documentary we appeared in our real characters, showing our true feelings
and emotions. I shot every family Christmas celebration and my daughter, who is currently studying cinema directing in Cuba, is now doing the same, shooting videos of me and her father. When I shot with Chahine, I would leave the camera running in the office and we used to chat together a lot, so I shot hours with him. The most difficult part of Let’s Talk was the editing process, because I had to choose which incidents I wanted to narrate. If you come to my office, you will see the movie on the wall in the form of cards.
6-How do you see the difference between the four generations in the documentary? Is there a huge gap between them? What do they have in common?
There is a gap between the generations, and at the same time, you will feel that they complete each other. People noticed that my daughter has a very startling resemblance to my mom—her grandmother—who died before she was born. There is a great similarity between them, even though they didn’t see each other, even in the soul. Also, my voice is similar to that of my grandmother.
Documentaries usually don’t attract audiences’ attention and therefore don’t achieve much commercial success, yet Let’s Talk won the audience award at the Cairo International Film Festival and was also the only Egyptian movie participating in the international competition. What made it appeal so much to the audience?
I meant to make a movie that records the daily life of a normal Egyptian family so each one could relate to his or her family. The film houses the stories of more than one generation, so both youth and older people related to it. It appealed to my mother’s generation, my generation, my daughter’s generation and even the generation younger than my daughter saw themselves in Let’s Talk.
7-You studied political science and economics at AUC, and then finished a master’s in economics at Oxford University. To what extent has a background in economics helped you in your career as the producer behind several successful projects?
My economics background definitely helped me as a producer, and I didn’t know at the beginning of my career that it would help me that much. Cinema is a big world full of details, the first job for me in the cinema industry was executive producer with Chahine. I started working and exploring this new world; I learned how to translate the script into numbers, the true meaning of scenes and images. My business studies was the base I started from, it was the theoretical background that helped me to understand the practical world of cinema.
8-You directed a number of successful documentaries. Do you have plans to direct feature movies in the future?
People close to me always ask when I will work on a feature movie—they don’t know that I just don’t relate to feature movies. I’d rather do a documentary with a feature flavor or the opposite. The type of the movie is not important to me, the most important thing is the content, the story and what I am going to narrate and how I will narrate it. Whether it’s in the form of feature or documentary is not the main issue, that’s why I omitted the word documentary from the movie campaign. We wrote a film and people view it as a movie, not as a documentary. Even the Cairo International Film Festival didn’t view it as a documentary, and that’s why it competed in the international competition of the festival as the only Egyptian movie.
9- What are your upcoming projects?
My future project is not to work on another movie but to develop the way movies are being executed. I want to help in that, I have a lot of friends who have projects similar to this one and I can understand the obstacles they are facing. The procedures of executing a movie like Let’s Talk are very difficult, it may seem easy but it’s not because there are a lot of preparations on the side and there is a special technique you have to follow in terms of image, script and editing. I spent a year in the process of subtitling the movie because it was translated into four languages. I believe that these types of movies will be a major leap in the Egyptian cinema industry.