Reemergence of a Past: Joanna Hogg Interviewed by Daniella Shreir

The filmmaker speaks about The Souvenir, class, gender, and the autobiographical.

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The Souvenir 01  By Agatha Nitecka  Courtesy Of A24

Tom Burke and Honor Swinton Byrne in Joanna Hogg’s The Souvenir, 2019. Photo by Agatha Nitecka. Image courtesy of the artist and A24 Films.

Joanna Hogg’s films are both revered and loathed for their focus on her awkward, talkative, upper-middle class subjects who pass through the filmic landscape largely unjudged, even indulged. Her films are rare in contemporary British cinema, where funding has recently favored the rural over the metropolitan and depictions of the working class over those of the middle and upper-middle classes. Though Hogg had once denied claims that her work was concerned with questions of class, this questioning is now found at the very heart of The Souvenir.

Set in Thatcher’s Britain and based on Hogg’s own experience at film school, The Souvenir follows Julie (Honor Swinton Byrne) and her adolescent desires, soon quashed by the male instructors who chastise her for her privilege and, we can assume, gender, as well as by the whims of her damaged boyfriend, Anthony (Tom Burke), who takes up increasing emotional space throughout the film.

Building on the nonlinearity and texture experimented with first in Exhibition (2013), The Souvenir is layered with dream-like imagery and stills drawn from Hogg’s own early unrealized work. By the end these artistic interruptions have all but disappeared, as Julie has been used up by her lover and institution. Hogg begins filming The Souvenir: Part Two next month.  

—Daniella Shreir

 


Daniella Shreir Throughout the film Julie is told that her first film should draw from her own experience. Of all your films, The Souvenir draws the most from your own experience. I wanted to ask: At what point did you feel able to tell this story?

Joanna HoggI first sketched out some ideas for a film based on this experience in 1988, around three years after the experience itself ended. I knew it would be an interesting story to tell, but I wasn’t yet ready to make it: I was still too much under the shadow of the experience, and I didn’t yet have the ability to put it into a film. That was something that came a lot later.

DSWhat was it like to confront your younger self, both as a pre-career filmmaker and the rough subject of the film? 

JHWhen I started to look back at the notes from the late ‘80s a few years ago, I was surprised by how articulate they were. It was interesting because, until then, I used to reflect on my younger self and think about a girl who didn’t know what she was doing. But actually I had already at that point decided that the film should be in two parts: that the first part should concentrate on the experience of the relationship, and the second part should be a reaction to it and a processing of it—one that would allow for a kind of transcendence. I wanted the character to be able to come out of the shadow of the relationship.

It was uncomfortable but there was also a pleasure in it, too. Looking back at those film projects I never completed and being able to reassess them and even finish them, now with an older perspective. The hardest part was discovering that, fundamentally, I hadn’t changed that much.

The Souvenir 10  By Nikola Dove  Courtesy Of A24

Tilda Swinton, Tom Burke, and Honor Swinton Byrne in Joanna Hogg’s The Souvenir, 2019. Photo by Nikola Dove. Image courtesy of the artist and A24 Films.

DSWithout overemphasizing the autobiographical angle, I did want to ask whether you were more concerned with laying out the facts of what happened, in the hope that feelings would then come, or if you were always concerned with prioritizing the evocation of those feelings.

JHIt was definitely about the feelings; they have to be real. And although there were a lot of personal details that needed to be accurate, I didn’t want to fetishize the detail or that time period, so it had to feel right to me, which is something that only I can really know and something that I delved very deeply into when I was writing the film. I go as deep as I need to go; it feels almost like a work of archeology, to find what the bottom line is, what the emotional motor of the film is. And then I can work upwards from there. But unless I find that underlying feeling, I can’t build on top of that.

DSIn terms of accessing those feelings, were those memories clear now some thirty years on? I read that you recreated the apartment in which you lived. Did that process of recreation spark any repressed memories? 

JHCompletely, I didn’t realize how powerful that process was going to be. The recreation of my old apartment was the catalyst for resurfacing a lot of memories. At the outset of the project I remember telling myself, You can only remember what you remember, but it showed me that you can, if you focus strongly, bring memories back you thought were lost. 

DSI suppose you were, in some ways, using some of the same tools as therapists who deal with trauma. You were recreating the site of the trauma literally rather than mentally, but either way, you were forcing yourself to enter back into that traumatic experience.

JHYes, absolutely, and I’ve been through that process in a therapeutic, psychoanalytic context. So maybe, unconsciously (laughter), the psychotherapy I’ve done has helped form the way I work. At one point in my life I was doing Transactional Analysis in a group where we’d act out not only our own story but other people’s too, helping them bring back feelings and memories from something that happened in the past. That process was actually very much part of my thinking before making The Souvenir.

DSDid you use this process for the actors too?

JHIt was much more structured around my own memories and the story I wanted to tell, which was very clear to me. So the question was more about who I tell that story to, who was it useful to tell that story to. For example, Tom was very much party to the story and where it was going, and that’s because his character is essentially an actor, even a director, so he needed as much information as necessary to be the driver of the story. Whereas, with Honor, I decided that she would just take it day by day and scene by scene; she didn’t know how the story was going to unfold. But she did discover who I was at that time. I shared with her my diaries and photographs and films from the early ‘80s. She was immersed in my world but not in the actual story that was about to unfold. 

The Souvenir 12  Photo By Simone Falso  Courtesy Of A24 1

Tom Burke and Honor Swinton Byrne in Joanna Hogg’s The Souvenir, 2019. Photo by Agatha Simone Falso. Image courtesy of the artist and A24 Films.

DSThe film is pertinent to the conversation everyone seems to be having today about who has the right to tell which stories, especially when it comes to race and class. But this is your story …

JHThe questioning of this right was always been part of the story, of my story. Class nearly always comes up during a discussion about my films, but with The Souvenir the discussion becomes an integral part of the film’s fabric. And I didn’t want a side-glance at it; I wanted to be very direct about that conversation. 

DSI was struck by how many critics wrote about the film’s “authenticity.” Though I’m suspicious of that word, it’s also a concept you’re playing with: this is the first time you’ve shot on film; you’re using a real-life mother and daughter, Tilda Swinton and Honor Swinton Byrne.

JHI’ve definitely been guilty of using that word to describe what I’m trying to do in my films, but I’m also suspicious of it and its overuse. In terms of the film as a whole there is a lot of inauthenticity there, in that fiction is made up of a series of inventions and lies. However, I did want Julie to have her authenticity questioned, because it was something that happened to me. It happened to me almost exactly as it happens in the film, where I had a story that I thought was authentic and true but then it was challenged, and it was quite devastating at the time.

DSI’m not sure if I’ve ever seen a young woman filmmaker on-screen before. And it was funny because I found myself thinking, This is 1980s Britain; what’s going to happen to her?  The number of women making films in the ‘80s or ‘90s in Britain was especially small.

JHWhen I was first thinking about the film in the late ‘80s, and even when I took it up again a few years ago, we weren’t having those conversations about women filmmakers. And both times I’d felt a real urgency to tell the story of a woman artist which wouldn’t be a simple inversion of films led by the male ego, like Federico Fellini’s 8 1/2.

I want to go even further in Part Two, into the more microscopic detail of how an artist is formed, how creative ideas come about, what the motor of the creativity is, and how that gets expressed in the outside world. I’m interested in taking this character, who’s obviously a version of myself, and putting her into this filmmaking landscape and watching her grow. It’s not always a straight or easy line. And we’ve seen her as a compassionate, empathetic character in Part One, but the ambition she has is still to emerge.

In Part Two she will be challenged again and won’t always be seen in a flattering light. I’m not interested in showing a portrait of a “strong” woman. I’m interested in the vulnerability, the challenges, and then maybe the arrogance that might leak out. The arrogance I remember feeling when I was a student at film school and believed I could make a better film than anyone else, that I could be a female Spielberg. It’s true that she may have lost her confidence in Part One, but Part Two will deal with the reemergence of a past spirit.


 

Joanna Hogg’s The Souvenir is now screening at select theaters across the US.

Daniella Shreir is the editor of printed feminist film journal Another Gaze. She also works as a translator and graphic designer.

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