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It demands the elders to confront their past and support their children: Memory Box, a trawl through the Lebanese Civil War

Wednesday 24 May 2023, by Lillian Crawford

At the end of Memory Box, Alex (Paloma Vauthier) films her mother Maia (Rim Turki) at a party on her smartphone, panning out to capture the sun rising on the city skyline. It’s a new technology of image capture, itself caught by the digital camera, aligned with the memory of 8mm and 16mm, still photographs, and notebooks which populate the preceding scenes. Even as we live moments, we are thinking about how we will remember them, with time allowing for increasing recording clarity.

Memory Box is the latest feature collaboration from Lebanese filmmakers and artists Joana Hadjithmas and Khalil Joreige, both born in Beirut in 1969 and grew up during the Lebanese Civil War. Since the 1990s their work has investigated themes of memory and trauma in the Middle East, often pulling from biographical experience. The most impressive aspect of Memory Box is its intertextuality, weaving together photography and film to form a unique scrapbook-style narrative feature which blurs the lines between cinema and video art.

Rather than directors, Hadjithomas and Joreige describe themselves as ‘chercheurs’, defining their work as a form of looking in order to recover something for public display. Memory Box epitomises that mission, a film as much about the experience of information recovery as it is about the specific details of the plot. While that plot is fictionalised, what we see in Memory Box is real – the journal and tapes in the film are Hadjithomas’s own, spanning the period of her life between 1982 and 1988, coupled with Joreige’s photographs of the Civil War. As well as blurring forms of media, the chercheurs similarly play with concepts of reality and fiction.

This isn’t the first of the couple’s films to experiment with these ideas – A Perfect Day (2005) tells the story of a man and his mother who decide to declare his father dead 15 years after he went missing during the Civil War; and Je veux voir (2008) sees Catherine Deneuve as herself facing the devastation of South Lebanon in 2006. In Memory Box, the objects of memory are presented as the collection of Maia, sent from Beirut to her friend Liza in Paris during the Civil War in the 1980s. When Alex starts to rifle through the box, she is transported into her mother’s adolescence, creating intergenerational tension as well as deep understanding and empathy.

The teenage Maia is played beautifully by Manal Issa, bringing the photographs and journals both historical and created for the film to vivid life. She shows how, despite the older Maia’s pretensions to the contrary, there is a lot that she and her daughter have in common, perfectly captured by parallel party scenes in the past and present set to Blondie’s ‘One Way or Another’. It gives the new generation a sensitivity for their parents’ experiences, while also demanding their elders to confront their past and support their children. It can often be difficult to face these representations, and the horrors of war, but the film is rewarding both as a conceptual work and as narrative. Hajithomas and Joreige ensure that their images will remain in the mind long after they have faded from view.

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