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

BFI LFF: Curiosity Compels the Story in ‘Memory Box’

The curiosity-driven Memory Box, playing at the BFI London Film Festival 2021, explores the role of memory and the lasting impact of the Lebanese Civil War.

Memory Box
Joana Hadjithomas, Khalil Joreige
October 2021 (BFI LFF)

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 own life serves as 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, the 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 her secrecy about its contents frustrate Alex, who goes against her mother’s wishes and rifles through it without permission. What she finds is a treasure trove of her mother’s memories from the ’80s: notebooks, tapes, and photos the young Maia (Manal Issa) had sent to her best friend while living in Beirut during the Lebanese Civil War.

At its most basic, then, Memory Box is about a mother’s desire to privately forget her painful memories and a daughter’s curiosity. These simple desires immerse viewers in the drama, and they become implicit in rifling through Maia’s past. Each person has a history filled with pain and joy that shouldn’t always be shared. 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. Understanding Alex’s curiosity and Maia’s desire to privately deal with this reminder, the audience is positioned as both the curious child and the adult whose past is intruded upon. 

The story reflects the generational transformation of how we document our lives. Maia represents the pre-digital age when we confided and shared with restraint, as opposed to Alex’s generation who upload and share much of their lives. Those who share their personal lives online may also be denying the privacy of those closest to them.

Alex is guilty of sharing her discoveries about her mother with her friends, deepening the betrayal. Maia shares tape recordings and photos with her best friend, but the telling remains personal.

Surprised by the revelations, Alex tells her friends that she doesn’t recognise this person (her mother). She’s too young to realise that none of us are fully honest about who we are. We’re like a novel with chapters missing, trying to either become someone new or distance ourselves from the memories of who we’ve been. It’s not a lie, it’s how we choose to present ourselves, but Alex is still young, and in her eyes, the world is black and white. 

Teenagers and young adults misinterpret the intentions of their parents who set boundaries, perceiving hypocrisy when they learn their parents were once their age. When Alex learns her mother smoked, she broadcasts it over a messaging platform to her friends; a muted joy at exposing her mother’s adolescent reverie. It’s an act of naïve empowerment that’s combined with annoyance. 

Memory Box is about generational conflict and the struggle to communicate. The story explores how curiosity is a transformative energy that can be as destructive as it can be positive. Alex comes to better understand her mother, and her act of betrayal of trust, when forgiven, strengthens their bond. It forces Maia to not only confront her past but open herself up to her daughter. In as much as it’s okay to internalise our memories and emotions, the story speaks about the need for being open with those we love.

The flashbacks to 1980s Beirut are filled with a visual flare that conveys youthful effervescence. Hadjithomas and Joreige take advantage of the opportunity to be creative, using the camera to create an expressionistic or artistic staging of the past. It’s a choice that benefits the film, providing what could be a straight-laced drama with artistry.

It also serves to shroud Maia’s wartime experiences in a dreamlike aesthetic, far removed from the civil setting of present-day Montreal. This is not to say the harsh reality of the Civil War is diminished. The tenderness of the mother and daughter relationship is offset with loss, where life and love are denied by the conflict.

Maia’s father, who is a teacher, questions whether ideals exist. It’s a pertinent question for our contemporary world riddled with narcissism and corruption. The roots of idealism are inside of us. Idealism is first a spiritual concept before being something to intellectualize.

Much of Memory Box confronts externalising our internal thoughts and feelings – to remember 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.