Review: Memory Box

Even while moving into the territory of fiction, documentarians Joana Hadjithomas and Khalil Joreige keep themselves rooted in the past. The pair’s new film, Memory Box, is built out from Hadjithomas’s record of living in Lebanon in the 1980s, during the protracted civil war. In present-day Montreal, Alex (Paloma Vauthier) takes a keen interest in a box delivered to her mother, Maia (Rim Turki). It contains reams of photographs, stacks of notebooks and diaries, and cassettes, which Maia is adamant Alex should leave alone. But Alex, who, in typical millennial fashion, is already an intrepid documenter of her own life, can’t pass up the opportunity to leaf through and listen to the archive of her mother’s youth. The contrast between mother and daughter’s respective approaches is quite intuitively visualised, and so are the questions it broaches about history, privacy, and the self. The directors begin the film with Alex recording a snowstorm, sharing the images in an instant with her friends; screens bleed into new screens, notifications flash up unendingly, voice notes clamour for attentive ears. Maia, on the other hand, treats the material stamp of her past with great trepidation, since she knows what Alex doesn’t know yet: no one’s past is theirs alone. Alex, while immersing herself in the overflowing boxes, begins to make Maia’s past an interactive thing, at first in slow moving images, then in full dramatisations; at times, photographs of her friends are animated, coming to life through familiarisation—others burn and warp, a sign of the rupturing effect of the conflict through which she lived. The film’s central conceit is strong, but the attempts to draw mother and daughter back into sympathy with each other rest on a conclusion that leaves little room for unresolved feelings. The productive tension between Alex and Maia’s disposition towards evidence (one being always ready to share, the other hesitant and resigned to seal up the traumas of her past), which the film develops in a sustained fashion, is abandoned for something a little too emotionally neat. 

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