It was a nice surprise to discover that my first online film in this year’s LFF was introduced by Sarah Perks my erstwhile teaching partner from Cornerhouse/HOME in Manchester. Sarah moved into artist’s film a few years ago and is now a Professor at Teesside University. She clearly knows the couple who made Memory Box, Joana Hadjithomas and Khalil Joreige who are artists as well as filmmakers. I think I’ve only seen Je veux voir (I Want to See, Lebanon 2008) of their previous films. It starred Catherine Deneuve as herself, a celebrity seeing the damage from the 2006 war in Lebanon. There is an immediate link between that film and Memory Box.
It’s Christmas in Montreal and teenager Alex (she might be 18?) is making stuffed vine leaves with her grandmother Téta. Her mother Maia is not home yet. A box like a tea chest is delivered by the postie and at first Téta says they won’t accept it even though it is addressed to Maia, but Alex insists that they do want it. When Maia gets home she is shocked and forbids Alex to look at the box’s contents. But Alex is desperate to know more about her mother and circumstances make it easy to discover a treasure trove of notebooks, photographs and cassette tapes. Through Alex we will get to discover the young Maia between the ages of 13 and 18 back in Beirut. Alex has never been told the story and she becomes engrossed. What happened during the Civil War in Lebanon and why won’t her mother talk about it? To find out we must pursue flashbacks to teenage Maia in Beirut played with great vitality by Manal Issa. As well as offering us a youth picture narrative set against the bombing and general disruption of Beirut, this is also the opportunity for the filmmakers to explore a whole range of techniques in presenting what are now ‘memories’.
The notebooks and photos are inspired by the archives of the filmmakers themselves, Joana as the writer and Khalil as the photographer, when they were similarly young people in Beirut in the 1980s. There is also a third writer, Gaëlle Macé. Joana and Khalil didn’t want to make a film about their own memories as such and they felt “freer with more distance” by focusing on the ideas rather than their own histories. But on the other hand, using their own archives keeps them attached to the ‘feel’ of the 1980s. This is a complex set of relationships with the past. They cast the actors for the flashbacks and then found ways to animate photographs and to ‘distress’ film/video footage and add explosions etc. so that we experience how Alex sees her mother in Beirut. All this is accompanied by an enjoyable 1980s soundtrack. Dancing to Blondie is a standout. Is there romance for young Maia? What do you think? Beirut was a war zone and there is tragedy as well as joy and hope, but eventually Maia and her mother had to leave, first for France and then to Canada. A key term in this presentation of Beirut and this particular Christian family in the city is ‘texture’ and ideas about mediation. How different are the visual and aural images Alex encounters from the actual experiences of Maia? Memories are produced in different ways and then worked on over time, remembered and re-worked, stories are told and re-told – or in this case, deliberately not told.
I don’t want to spoil the narrative pleasures of the film but I’m not giving too much away to reveal that the three women, representing three generations, do return to contemporary Beirut, a city that has been almost completely reconstructed after the wars that finally ended in 2006 – though the massive explosion in 2020 has since caused more devastation. The film was virtually complete in 2019 before worked stopped on it during lockdown. Joana spoke in the Q+A about the idea of ‘rupture’ in the emotional attachment of characters to Beirut’s people and its history and she emphasised the importance of the ‘re-construction’ of the city and of the history? The film is also about the ‘transmission’ of the personal history of the family.
This is a fascinating family drama about three central female characters played by Rim Turki as the older Maia, Clémence Sabbagh as Téta and Paloma Vauthier as Alex. I thought all the performances were very strong. The only oddity is the absence of of Alex’s father, who is mentioned as having amicably parted from Maia. But since he would have been either French or French-Canadian with no background in Beirut, this is understandable.
I’m not sure if it matters if an audience isn’t that familiar with the long war in 1980s Lebanon which had many levels and involved not only a civil war between different Christian and Muslim factions, but also the actions of the Syrian and Israeli armed forces and the presence of large numbers of Palestinian refugees. The focus is on the family story and I was reminded of a film like Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis (France-US 2007) in which another teenager attempts to balance family, education and discover boys in the midst of a war and a local society with different codes of morality and behaviour. Maia has left Beirut and her family story to make a new life in Montreal and this, in different ways, might make a link to Stories We Tell (Canada 2012), the hybrid documentary by Sarah Polley. Studying these three films together would be an interesting project.
It appears that Memory Box has been acquired by Modern Films for distribution in the UK and Ireland. I enjoyed the film immensely and I think it is very successful in what it sets out to do. In fact, I could write a great deal more on the film but I’ve got to press on, the next festival film is coming up! Do try to see Memory Box in a cinema if it comes to your area. The film should look very good with Josée Deshaies’ cinematography presented in ‘Scope on a big screen. I feel it is bound to get you thinking about families and memories. Memory Box is in Arabic and French with English subtitles. Here is a clip from the film showing Alex listening to a cassette and looking at photos of Maia in Beirut. You can also see some of the animation.