Unearthing the Past and Connecting to the Present
By Elise Hassan
The past is something of a lingering ghost in Memory Box – eager to be forgotten and left behind, equally insistent on being seen – poking its weary head through until, one day, it finds itself on the doorstep, both figuratively and literally, demanding to be dealt with once and for all.
Memory Box is filled with themes of memory, intergenerational trauma, and of how reconnecting with the past allows a mother and daughter to connect in the present. For teenage daughter Alex, and her mother Maia, the past is something that stands between them – presenting itself in the form of lies and secrets that run through Maia’s life – caused by the trauma of growing up during the Lebanese Civil War. Alex secretly yearns to know and understand her mother, so when a mysterious box appears on their doorstep, full of Maia’s old scrap books, cassettes and photos, Alex wastes no time searching through her mother’s past – desperate to unearth them.
Based on Joana Hadjithomas’ own adolescent experience of growing up in 1980’s Beirut, and the correspondence that took place between her and her best friend who fled to France. Throughout the film, her personal photos and diaries serve as archive of what she experienced in Lebanon during that period.
The film plays like a nostalgic daydream as Alex trawls through decades’ worth of correspondence between Maia and her childhood friend, Liza. She plays her mother’s old cassette tapes which narrates all that she finds. She listens to the 80’s music her mother used to dance to, delights in the photos of her mother smoking, kissing a boy in the back of a car, and finds joy in how alike they were at the same age.
As Alex delves deeper into her mother’s memories, she learns of the darkness in her mother’s young life. The things Alex takes for granted, the simple joys, freedoms, excitement and hedonism of being a teenager in the twenty-first century were all hard won for her mother during the war in Lebanon. A virtual prisoner of her protective parents, kept from leaving the house and seeing her friends and boyfriend, Maia writes in her journal that she doesn’t want to die a virgin, that she wants to travel and become a photographer. As Beirut collapses, bombs strike and chaos and disorder ensue, we watch the photos begin to disintegrate along with her mother’s passion for life. Alex’s grandmother notes, as Alex leaves the tap water running, the privilege of never having to worry about running out of water, or losing electricity. She never has to worry about her friends dying or going missing.
Alex’s own life begins to contrast to that of Maia’s as the film captures two wholly different generations. Memory Box does this in many ways, one being through a playful portrayal of technology. Text messages flutter on the screen and arrive in seconds as Alex tells her friends all about what she has discovered, whilst Maia wrote letters to her best friend overseas and sent her cassette recordings full of her thoughts and feelings. Maia captured her life on a film camera, while Alex captures and stores her life on her cell phone – a contemporary memory box. The physicality of the memories collected by Maia, sits in stark contrast to those of Alex’s, whose conversations are fleeting and intangible. Maybe this, in part, is why Maia struggles to let her daughter into the present, let alone the past. Maybe this is also why, when Maia discovers that Alex has been prying through her memory box, anger is quickly replaced with defeat and guilt.
Memory Box so beautifully captures the joy of hours spent looking through old family photos as well as the enlightening moment we come to realise the other lives lived by our parents before we were even conceived. Memories and the trauma within those memories that we did not belong to. Yet will come to know us eventually just as they do through the behavioural patterns of lies and secrecy that exist in Alex’s family. Memory Box traces the trauma that seeps through generations. We see it in Alex’s grandmother, flowing into Maia and then into Alex’s own life. The film feels especially pertinent to families, like my own, who have dealt with past trauma in their lives as it exposes the embedded sadness within Alex’s family and explores what navigating a life with a past full of ghosts looks like.
We learn of the killing of Maia’s little brother, and of the tragic death of her father, targeted for being a beacon of education and hope in Lebanon. His death sets off a wave of secrets and lies and ultimately a way to survive for Maia and her mother, but it is Alex who finally ends this generational curse by breaking the pattern and disrupting traditional familial hierarchies by becoming a friend and ally to her mother.
Hadjithomas creates a sense of equality between Maia and Alex, going beyond the mother/daughter dynamic, as Alex becomes friends with the girl she finds in the memory box. We see something similar In Celine Sciamma’s Petite Maman when both mother and daughter become the same age (8 years old) the dynamic changes between them and, like in Memory Box, they become friends and peers, sharing the same fears, dreams and desires.
Alex’s curiosity and yearning to connect and share her mother’s memories, pushes Maia to reflect, to remember, and, ultimately, to go back to the past, and return to Lebanon with the support of her daughter. There she meets her old friends, her long-lost first love, and a country she once knew – now rebuilt, much like the relationship between mother and daughter.
In an interview with The Guardian, Hadjithomas, resolutely notes: “We lived violent things, but art led us out of it. We didn’t let the ghosts fill our life.”
Elise Hassan is a writer, programmer and curator, passionate about championing women-led Middle Eastern and North African cinema.
Her favourite films include Mustang, Spirited Away and Goodbye First Love!
For more about Elise, click HERE