A Film a Week - Memory Box

 previously published on Asian Movie Pulse

Some movies spoof a sub-genre on their own. There is a term “Big Chill clone” that brings together the films about a group of school friends that went their separate ways gathering again to mourn the untimely death of one of their buddies and to take a walk down the memory lane. The Berlinale competition title “Memory Box” might eventually end up in that familiar territory, but the road to it is quite particular and with a number of side topics woven into the film’s fabric.

There are multiple reasons for it, one of them being the focus on the three generations of women of a Quebecois family of Lebanese immigrants, the second being the background of the Lebanese Civil War and the traumas it left, while the third one is the fact that this co-operation by Joana Hadjithomas and Khalil Joreige is based on the material from Hadjithomas’ personal collection of memories (like letters, journals and audio cassettes). Some things are certain, though: the impact that “Memory Box” makes is instant and the impression it leaves is going to last.

The titular cardboard box arrives the day before the Christmas to an address in the contemporary Montreal where the teenage girl Alex (Paloma Vauthier) lives with her mother Maia (Rim Turkhi) and grandmother dit Téta (Clémence Sabbagh). The box comes from France and from the family of Maia’s former pen-pal Liza’s family. Liza has recently died in a car accident, so Téta’s instinct regarding it is right: the content of the box (the stuff Maia sent to Liza during the war) is bound to stir some memories and raise uncomfortable questions, so she orders it to be put away until the holidays are over.

However, Alex is interested in her mother’s growing up since she knows nothing about it, so she opens it. For Maia, the box brings up the unpleasant memories she would rather forget, since they are marked by death, destruction and the painful ending to friendships and relationships. Téta simply wants to protect both her daughter and granddaughter, as well as the new life the three of them have forged in a new environment. The letters, photos, journals and cassettes take us to another place and another time when Maia was a teenager (played by Manal Issa) dealing with protective mother (Nisrine Abi Samra), her depressed father that mourned both the death of his son and the death of his country until he himself dies, her first close friendship with Liza before she emigrated to France and her first love affair with Raja (Hassan Akil) who would also emigrate and whose confessional background worried Maia’s parents. As it turns out, the young people just wanted to be young, to enjoy the stuff like music, movies and going out, but the times were not on their side…

Hadjithomas and Joreige are the key filmmaking duo in the contemporary Lebanese cinema nowadays. They are quite versatile topic- and approach-wise, making fiction films with some experimental techniques applied to them as well as the documentaries and the video-installations. “Memory Box” is their most accessible work so far, but it is still pretty far of the ordinary fictionalized memoir. Sure, it deals with the topic of growing up in turbulent times from a deeply personal perspective, but it also raises the subjects such as the dynamics within the family, the generational and the cultural differences, the different relationships to the notion of privacy and the relationship between the analogue and the digital. “Memory Box” is a very complex film, but the clarity of the duo’s filmmaking vision is evident.

Acting-wise, both of the actresses that play Maia in their different stages of life fare off best, which is understandable given that Maia is Hadjithomas’ stand-in, the central character of the story told in flashbacks and the co-lead character in the story that serves as the framework. There is a bit of curiosity and teenage stubbornness in Alex that Paloma Vauthier channelizes well. On the other hand, on both story levels, the character of Téta is pushed aside and relegated to the basic sentiments of caring and worrying.

Technically, “Memory Box” is simply marvellous due to both the directors’ vision and the top-notch execution. The soundtrack consisting of electropop and new wave hits of the 80s is somewhat expected, but it works, while the different coding of the imagery, from the cool digital look of the outer story and the infusion of super-8 and 16mm shots in the inner one is simply brilliant. There was a lot of pressure on the editor Tina Baz who did a great work blending it all together.

Another important thing is that “Memory Box” is by no means a work of “misery porn” that exploits the horrors of the war, which is occasionally the case with Middle Eastern titles. On the contrary, it acknowledges the pain, but also offers a shy ray of hope which is more than needed, especially in Lebanon, the country that still tries to move on from its past while the new tragedies keep hitting it.

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