Joana Hadjithomas and Khalil Joreige’s Memory Box is far more complex and layered than you would expect and hits all the right emotional notes as it asks its audience how they view their own memories and past. A wonderfully satisfying film.
Teenager Alex (Paloma Vauthier) covertly goes through her mother Maia’s (Rim Turki) box of journals, audiotapes, and photographs, revealing difficult adolescence in the war-torn Lebanese capital dark family secret. Alex uses the material to build her own picture of Maia’s youth, sharing intimate memories on social media.
Our parents’ lives can often be a true mystery, especially when we are teenagers; we look at them and wonder what they were like when they were our age; what did they get up to? Are they anything like the people they are now, and if not, what changed in them and in their lives to be that way? With directors Joana Hadjithomas and Khalil Joreige, we get a wonderfully poetic look into this mystery.
Instantly we can relate to both Alex and Maia; one wants to learn and unwrap the mystery that is her mother, and the other wants to lock away any of the pain that her past may hold—thinking that it is easier to keep the past at arm’s length, especially a past that involved escaping a war. Ignoring the pain is understandable, and the stresses of opening back up can be unbearable, so Maia keeps it deep down within. This ultimately leads to a fractious relationship with Alex, now that it is just the two of them. Alex needs someone to relate to and be open with, but Maia’s restrained demeanour means she simply can’t be that person for her daughter. So when Alex delves into the box, she finds a person and a mother that she can find that comrade with.
There are interesting threads spread throughout Memory Box, one of which is the use of photography as a way of seeing into the world of another person; we see Maia’s life in Beirut in vivid, wonderful photographs, we see the fun that she had with her friends, and a picture can be formed. With Alex, she forms an opinion or ideal of her mother that isn’t wholly a true representation of her.
Similarly, a roll of film is hidden in a camera that has become fogged and distorted over time due to it not being developed that details the more unhappier moments of Maia’s life and is almost purposefully hidden away. As if we capture that moment in the photo, but if we do not develop it, it never becomes true; the memory of that moment of time can be lost within that film roll. But, as said, Memory Box is very poetic in its nature and moments like that shine through strongly.
The trouble of Alex forming her own ideas of this time, thanks to audiotapes, notebooks and pictures, is she doesn’t get to see all of the sides of this period in her mother’s life. Instead, she sees what she wants to see; a frustrated teenager who wants to live her life and wants to escape the suffocation of her grieving and worried mother. A girl who wants to live, whether that is with her teenage sweetheart or otherwise, even in the ever-increasing destruction of 1980s Beirut.
So rather tellingly and impressively, we are shown Maia’s time in her life view Alex’s limited perspective. As Maia and Raja ride off on a motorcycle bombs go off behind them, yet they look straight ahead, and it almost comes across as a romanticised version of the truth. Small touches make you aware that this isn’t how it went down, but we have to remember that young Maia is writing or saying this information to the unknown Liza. She is cherry-picking moments, taking the moments she wants to remember or convey to Liza, and thus it is all Alex has to go within mentally conjuring the formative years of her mother.
It is only when we hear Maia tell Alex her side of a part of her life that we see and feel a disconnect between the two versions. Alex’s version is almost teenage drama in its presentation. Maia’s version comes across as more raw. The effects are gone, and everything we see feels so much more natural and heartbreaking, as if the veil has been lifted, and we can finally see what it was really like for Maia at this time. Alex can maybe never fully relate to this version of Maia’s story, but she understands that something needs to be done about it.
Hadjithomas and Joreige pull the emotional strings as and when they need and when they do pull it, it hurts us hard. Nevermore so when we are older, Maia begins to talk about and remember her father’s decline as the war worsened. Seeing the pain of what she hid away or tried to force deep down in her haunts you as you understand why she has decided to do what she has. Is it a healthy choice? Perhaps not, but she adapted to get through that time, and for some, that is all they can do when presented with such trauma.
Trauma makes itself known throughout the film; we see the trauma of a parent who has lost a child and will do what they can to protect their last surviving one. We see the pain of a person who only wants to do good for his people but eventually becomes lost in the devastation that never seems to be ending. The trauma of having this core group of people you have known all your life, only for them to be taken away from you in various ways until you are gone from the source of the pain. That pain doesn’t go away, though, and it forms you whether you want it to or not. In Maia’s case, she becomes a shell of the person she was, almost having to harden up to get by.
That is the strength of this very textured film; Memory Box could easily be a straightforward story about a daughter finding a box of her mother’s teenage life in a country going through a terrible war. But by being so layered, we get enveloped by the entire story, and it works tremendously well.
One of the true stars in Memory Box is the art department and production design that create the notebooks and photographs we see in the film. You would be easily forgiven for thinking everything you see is authentic. Just a fantastic job is carried out here for Alex to deep dive into. But, equally, the film’s execution is what gravitates you towards it, mere photo’s become moving images, and you don’t question it at all; small effects pop in and out of the film, and you barely notice it; you are just engrossed. At times there are switches in the filming format, 16mm, for example, yet it feels right. It could easily fall flat on its face with those experimental moments; however, thankfully, it never does.
The central focus on Maia’s story causes us to lose out on more time with grandmother Téta’s. If there is a downside to this story, it resides there as she is gently moved to the side once Maia has discovered the box. It is a shame, but you understand why there wasn’t more screentime due to the runtime. Yet, we work out that the intents were never to see her side of the events that happened to Maia. Instead, it was to see the different sides Maia presents to Liza in the memory box and what she shares truthfully with her daughter.
Hadjithomas and Joreige show us how memories can haunt us like ghosts which in turn cause us to become ghosts of the person we once were just to survive. Yet, they also show us that there is a way of moving on with those memories and that maybe we shouldn’t be afraid to do so, to embrace rather than pull back.
This causes Memory Box to become a film that stays with you for a while and asks that question about what we have done or should do with those moments in our past. It is a film that easily invests you with the story and grabs hold of you as it challenges you to think inwardly by the time the credits roll.
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