Memory Box (2021) | featured image
Hassan Akil and Manal Issa in Memory Box (2021)

Directors Joana Hadjithomas and Khalil Joreige Recall Making ‘Memory Box’

Directors Joana Hadjithomas and Khalil Joreige talk about the making of Memory Box and reactivating the past through adolescent eyes.

Memory Box
Joana Hadjithomas and Khalil Joreige
21 January 2022 (UK)

Each act of creative expression sees the artist embracing vulnerability, exposing themselves to acceptance or rejection. Memory Box (Hatira Kutusu, 2021) is adapted from co-director and writer Joana Hadjithomas’ teenage letters and diaries. That her story serves as the raw material increases the stakes as we witness an artist bravely bare her soul. 

Co-directed and written by Khalil Joreige, alongside writer Gaëlle Macé, Memory Box’s story centres on single mother Maia (Rim Turki), living in Montreal with her teenage daughter, Alex (Paloma Vauthier). It’s Christmas, and when Alex’s grandmother Téta (Clémence Sabbagh) tries to decline an unexpected delivery, she stirs curiosity in her granddaughter. 

Maia’s refusal to open the package and secrecy about its contents frustrates Alex, who goes against her mother’s wishes and rifles through it without permission. She finds a treasure trove of her mother’s memories from the 1980s: notebooks, tapes, and photos the young Maia (Manal Issa) had sent to her best friend while living in Beirut during the Lebanese Civil War.

Much of Memory Box confronts externalising our internal thoughts and feelings – remembering instead of forgetting. The sharing of memories can deepen our connection with the people we love, and remembering can nurture such relationships. Hadjithomas’ willingness to embrace her vulnerability yields a heartfelt story with wisdom of experience. 

In conversation with PopMatters, Hadjithomas and Joreige discuss blurring the line between narrative and documentary, creating layers of complexity instead of conveying a message, and using art to interrogate sustaining a belief in a moment of collapse.

When we talk about artists embracing their vulnerability for art’s sake, the personal story behind Memory Box exemplifies this. What made you decide to share your experiences with an audience?

Joana Hadjithomas: [Memory Box] is based on notebooks I wrote to my best friend. She was in Paris, and I was in Beirut during the civil war. We promised to write to each other and kept that promise for more than six years. We recorded tapes, and we took pictures. When we met again 25 years later, she gave me all of those things back. 

I was overwhelmed; I didn’t know what to do. Suddenly we started to think it could be a great dialogue between Khalil and me, and it could be the premise or even subject of a film about transmission – to think about how you transmit your past to your children or other generations. It became personal because we were thinking about our daughter, who was present when we wrote the script. 

Khalil Joreige: We quickly decided to do it as a fiction film instead of a documentary because even though the documents were precise, we were able to create a distance and articulate a different narration. We could think about narration and storytelling, transmission, and other things that came through indirectly. We aimed to share a different emotion, to see what’s still active and vivid in those memories that were very precisely consigned to the notebook and the tapes.   

Is narrative fiction equal to documentary in its ability to express a truth, thereby challenging an often held distinction that separates the two? 

Joreige: At the start of our [creative] experimentations, we didn’t study the art of cinema – we came to it because we were interested in stories we can believe in. What quickly pushed us was to think about how some stories can be more believable in a certain context than others and also about how, in those documents, the boundaries are sometimes blurred. 

We don’t like boundaries and definitions, so the main question in our work becomes how we can share the emotional story and believe in what’s presented on the screen at a certain time and place. This pushed us to work with the actors in a specific way. Everyone but the actors would have the script, so we’d have the feeling what they were saying was for the first time.  

Hadjithomas: It was true that we worked on blurring the lines between documentary and fiction because when you live in a country like Lebanon, even if we can say “in our world”, it’s difficult to say, “this is fiction”, or, “this is documentary”. We don’t like the separation of those definitions.

In all our films, we go from something that has a secret we hear about. It remains a documentary, or it shifts between the two. In Memory Box, the idea was to use our archives and add some other pages and other images that we took from the cast that would go with the story. It was important to do this and stay between the two [narrative and documentary] because there was so much detail in those notebooks. It was interesting to go back to those details but also to have this strong impression that at that time, we wanted to live and love. It was not this idea of war like we’d usually show it. 

The Lebanese war lasted more than 15 years. We grew up during the conflict, and the notebooks expressed this urgency. We wanted to do Memory Box as a [work of] fiction to create some distance to the nostalgia that could have been present if it were only a documentary. We wanted this to be seen through the eyes of a teenager. We wanted to reactivate the past through her eyes with the tools of today – the phone and others. 

Alex’s frustrations with her mother make me think about how we forget the proverbial wise old man was once an impulsive young man. She views her mother as a hypocrite, failing to understand that we mature with age, and there’s a separation between our younger and adult selves. She’s still in a phase of self-discovery that is characterised by a naïveté and indifference, perhaps even ignorance. Yet she’s a catalyst for her mother’s journey to confront and move on from her past.

Hadjithomas: We think there’s no message or communication when you make a film – it’s layers of complexity that you try to add. In the transmission of the past and how you deal with it, especially when it’s heavy, it was important to see how we could tell the story of the civil war or just the story of our youth to our children. 

Alex evolves a lot, and as she starts reading, little by little, she finds empathy and compassion for her mother. It’s special when you have children, and you suddenly see in their eyes that they look at you differently – with empathy. Alex will help her mother to reconcile with her past. She will be the one to open this pandora’s box, and if not, her mother will always be this woman. 

Alex feels there’s a separation between her and her mother. It’s like those people that feel they’ve left something of themselves someplace, and so you have the impression that they’re never totally present. 

Joreige: People have different stories, and this is something we discovered in Joana’s notebook. Memory Box is also a film about identity and how when you’re a teenager, you want to live despite the will of your parents, even if it’s a war. This was the first feeling Joana had when she was re-reading her notebook.

Hadjithomas: There’s also a desire to work around the idea of trauma and how you inherit your parents’ soul. You have to liberate yourself from it, and maybe you have to liberate them, to liberate yourself.  

Joreige: This was a feeling we had with Maia. In Canada, she was cut from herself, and little by little, she reconfigured herself. There’s a reconciliation with her story when she comes back. 

It can be natural to want to internalise the feelings stirred by memory because sharing with others transforms the pain before we’re ready to let go, becoming part of our identity. 

Hadjithomas: What you’re talking about is also present in the character of the grandmother. What we lose, the suffering, and part of the trauma can become another identity. You’re afraid to change because you don’t know what’s going to happen to you, and this is very present, not only for me as a Lebanese but as the granddaughter of Greek immigrants. 

I see exactly what you’re talking about, and this is why it was important to go through this fiction with these three characters because the grandmother, the mother, and Alex they’re very different from each other in how they relate to the past. 

The grandmother leaves a country, so her secret isn’t revealed, and feels she’s living in this new country without existing. It was only in support that she ended up staying there. She doesn’t speak the language, and it’s like someone who has been torn away and put somewhere else. 

Everyone is afraid of moving because if we come back to another country, will it reveal all the secrets? You’ll sometimes escape from things, and it’ll become your new identity. This is what inspired us. 

A moment that has stayed with me is when Maia’s father, a teacher, questions whether ideals exist. It’s a pertinent question for our contemporary world riddled with narcissism and corruption that threatens democratic values. 

Hadjithomas: For me, the father represents our fathers. You have many ideas and dreams, then you’re suddenly stopped by what happens, and you have to continue. It’s like what we see in the world today, this moment of collapse. It was always a fight between education and war. The question is, how are you going to change the world? Should you change the world through education or war? 

The father is an intellectual, he was a journalist, and they killed his son. He feels responsible because they wanted to kill him. He still believes in education, and little by little, there seems no reason to continue to believe. 

This is a question you ask yourself every morning – “Why am I continuing? What should I do today? How should I fight? How should I continue to believe?” I think it’s why Khalil and I make films and art, always to ask this question of how to find the reasons to continue to believe.   

Art and films provide a space where you can find community, share topics, and … have a pleasant moment. The artistic experimentations we included in Memory Box don’t prevent people from enjoying the story because there are many layers of complexity. Cinema is a place to experiment, even if you have to tell a story. 

Joreige: We try not to make it a division between the body and the spirit. We would like them to be linked; sometimes, things are transmitted without knowing.

Hadjithomas: It’s innocence with music, or innocence with Memory Box because the film is also a story of photography, a film in a film. It’s also a way of sharing the intensity of youth because it’s very important to keep this energy. 

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