Film Review: “Memory Box” on Lebanon Merges Art & Cinema

13 June, 2022
Cas­settes sent by Joana Had­jithomas to her friend in Paris dur­ing the 1980s, fea­tured in the film Mem­o­ry Box.

 

Mem­o­ry Box is the lat­est film by Lebanese artist duo Joana Had­jithomas and Khalil Jor­eige, bring­ing togeth­er years of artis­tic exper­i­men­ta­tion, per­son­al archives, and research on the pro­duc­tion of images from the Lebanese Civ­il War. The film was the first motion pic­ture to rep­re­sent Lebanon at the 71st Berli­nale in four decades.

In lim­it­ed VOD and in the­atres as fol­lows: Lou­vre, Paris, June 19 • Lebanese Film Fes­ti­val, Ottawa, June 20 • Soeurs Jumelles, Rochefort, June 22 • Beirut Cin­e­ma Days, July 3rd • Zawya Cin­e­ma, Cairo, from July 15th • Walk­er Art Cen­ter, Sep­tem­ber 28th • Miz­na Arab Film Fes­ti­val, Min­neapo­lis, Sep­tem­ber 28th-Octo­ber 2nd

 

Arie Akkermans-Amaya

 

Post­cards of War and Beirut, part of the Won­der Beirut project (1997–2006), as seen in Mem­o­ry Box.

Mem­o­ry Box (2021), the most recent cin­e­mat­ic effort by Lebanese film­mak­ers and artists Joana Had­jithomas and Khalil Jor­eige, is a film rich in imagery about the Lebanese Civ­il War. But vio­lent con­flict is not its cen­tral theme. Ulti­mate­ly, it is a film about the trans­mis­sion of mem­o­ry across gen­er­a­tions, what hap­pens when mem­o­ry becomes inter­rupt­ed, and the lengths that peo­ple go to in order to either restart or halt this process. The plot is decep­tive­ly simple:

Set in present day Mon­tre­al, a teenage girl, Alex (played by Palo­ma Vau­thi­er), lives with her moth­er Maia, and grand­moth­er, affec­tion­ate­ly called Téta in Ara­bic. On Christ­mas Eve, a mys­te­ri­ous deliv­ery arrives, it’s a box con­tain­ing Maia’s note­books, tapes and pho­tographs sent dur­ing the war years to her child­hood friend Liza in Paris. But both Maia (played as an adult by Rim Turkhi) and her moth­er (Clé­mence Sab­bagh), are afraid of the painful mem­o­ries that the note­books might reveal, and they for­bid Alex from look­ing into the con­tents of the box.

“The bomb­ing last­ed all week. We had to flee the school.” This is what Maia Abboud (played by Man­al Issa), the teenage pro­tag­o­nist from Beirut, tells her friend Liza Haber, in June 1982, in a record­ed tape that trav­eled from Lebanon to France, along­side the note­books, let­ters and pho­tographs that cap­ture that moment in time. We know the larg­er events of 1982 — the siege of Beirut which took place in the sum­mer that year, result­ing from the end of a cease­fire pre­vi­ous­ly bro­kered by the Unit­ed Nations. The ring around Beirut closed in by June 13th, a week after the Israeli inva­sion of Lebanon, as the Pales­tin­ian Lib­er­a­tion Orga­ni­za­tion and the Syr­i­an forces were iso­lat­ed inside the city. Maia’s nar­ra­tion con­tin­ues: “That night, things went wild. The city was in flames. Shelling and fires, like in a movie.”

Soon there­after, the city can be seen from above, in blur­ry archival images, beset by explosions.

How­ev­er, this sto­ry is both less and more than a fic­tion, as some of the note­books orig­i­nal­ly belonged to Had­jithomas. She offers us details about this mys­te­ri­ous archive and the role the note­books played in the mak­ing of the film:

“It all start­ed when I retrieved note­books, let­ters and audio­tapes I sent to my best friend in the 1980s. She had to leave Lebanon with her fam­i­ly, because of the Civ­il War and I stayed there. So, we promised to write to each oth­er every day. And we did so, every sin­gle day from 1982 to 1988. And then at some point, we lost con­tact for more than 25 years. Then, one day, she came to the open­ing of one of [mine and Khalil’s] exhi­bi­tions in Paris. We met again and decid­ed to exchange our note­books. Sud­den­ly, I had, in my hands, all these incred­i­ble sto­ries I had for­got­ten. I read and lis­tened to every­thing. Our daugh­ter, Alya, was then my age when I wrote to my friend, want­ed to read them. Khalil and I thought that it was not a very good idea for her to do so, but we imme­di­ate­ly saw the pos­si­bil­i­ty of a film.”

Pre­dictably for the plot of a film, Alex decides to dig in, and the note­books reveal to her a world that had remained hid­den until then — the intox­i­cat­ing years of the war, both exhil­a­rat­ing, and ter­ri­fy­ing. She reads and hears about her moth­er’s first love: “This is the best day of my life.” Her moth­er Maia and her grand­moth­er [Téta] had kept all the details about their past in Lebanon a secret. This unli­censed expe­di­tion into the past leads to an inevitable con­fronta­tion with Maia, in the after­math of which there’s truth-telling, rec­on­cil­i­a­tion and even­tu­al­ly a jour­ney back to Beirut, in order to attend a mass in mem­o­ry of Maia’s friend Liza, who has died in the inter­im. It’s also Maia’s first con­fronta­tion with the ghosts of the past, and the details are too beau­ti­ful to be writ­ten down here, they must be left for the view­ers of the film to dis­cov­er. How­ev­er ordi­nary this plot might seem (oth­er Lebanese films adopt a sim­i­lar nar­ra­tive tech­nique), or how acces­si­ble it is to an unpre­pared view­er, it is yet the ele­gant visu­al sto­ry­telling of Had­jithomas and Jor­eige where the real mag­ic happens.

 

Joana Had­jithomas and Khalil Jor­eige were both born in 1969 in Beirut. They col­lab­o­rate as artists and film­mak­ers, in a mul­ti­dis­ci­pli­nary prac­tice, com­bin­ing films, pho­tog­ra­phy, instal­la­tions, video, per­for­mance and sculp­tures. Their decades-long work has focused on the pro­duc­tion of images under con­di­tions of con­flict, and the cre­ation of polit­i­cal and his­tor­i­cal imag­i­nar­ies. Had­jithomas and Jor­eige were recip­i­ents of France’s most pres­ti­gious art award, the Duchamp Prize, in 2017. Mem­o­ry Box is their sixth film. Their work has been exten­sive­ly show­cased in venues such as Pom­pi­dou Cen­ter, the Onas­sis Cul­tur­al Cen­ter, Guggen­heim Muse­um, Shar­jah Art Foun­da­tion, the 56th Venice Bien­ni­al and Doc­u­men­ta 14 (pho­to AFP/Ammar Abd Rabbo).

On Direc­tors Joana Had­jithomas and Khalil Joreige

 

As con­tem­po­rary artists, Had­jithomas and Jor­eige have spent the last two decades exca­vat­ing Lebanon’s recent mem­o­ry land­scape inside out—across cin­e­ma, pho­tog­ra­phy, archival research and mul­ti­lin­ear nar­ra­tives drawn from archae­ol­o­gy, lit­er­a­ture and pol­i­tics, and Mem­o­ry Box is replete with sub­tle ref­er­ences to their pre­vi­ous works. When Alex begins to unpack her moth­er’s secret cor­re­spon­dence, she gazes inci­den­tal­ly upon what seems to be noth­ing but a con­tact print from an ana­log cam­era roll, con­tain­ing non­de­script images of the destruc­tion in Beirut, as Maia tells her far­away friend: “Beirut is so destroyed… Liza, you wouldn’t rec­og­nize it”. The print is in fact a sec­tion from one of Had­jithomas and Joreige’s ear­ly semi-archi­tec­tur­al pho­tog­ra­phy series, The Archae­ol­o­gy of Our Gaze (1997), shot from the debris of build­ings in Beirut, in an attempt to process frag­ments of a post­war city when the con­text has gone miss­ing and the view­er can no longer rec­og­nize the orig­i­nal source.

Their engage­ment with archae­ol­o­gy starts out in this series of semi-archi­tec­tur­al pho­tographs, but con­tin­ues in the fol­low­ing decades with larg­er nar­ra­tives, such as the com­plex process­es of archae­o­log­i­cal timescales, or the rela­tions of con­ti­nu­ity between the ancient past and the polit­i­cal present. Yet, what the artist duo is search­ing for in archaeology—which imme­di­ate­ly con­nects with the process and medi­um of their lat­est film, is not nec­es­sar­i­ly the past, but new pos­si­bil­i­ties on how lived time can be described, nar­rat­ed and record­ed. Khalil Jor­eige tells in an inter­view from 2012: “Archae­ol­o­gy here is inter­est­ing in the way that it for­bids you to give any def­i­n­i­tion of a place because it is struc­tured in time across dif­fer­ent times.”

Flocks of birds fly in slow motion across a pris­tine blue sky, sud­den­ly inter­rupt­ed at night by the sounds of fire. These poi­soned images blend with one anoth­er, and cross tem­po­ral­i­ties, while per­son­al mem­o­ries become estranged from one anoth­er. The car­nage of war is too bru­tal here to be treat­ed à part in aes­thet­ic terms. This vio­lent world is above all one of suf­fer­ing, beyond any redemption.

In a recent con­ver­sa­tion from Beirut, Jor­eige told us about the rela­tion­ship between per­son­al archives and cin­e­ma in their work: “We often start from some­thing very per­son­al to us, from our own archives, or from an encounter, and then we start research­ing. In [the film] A Per­fect Day (2005), it was the sto­ry of the kid­nap­ping of my mater­nal uncle who is one of the 17,000 miss­ing per­sons in Lebanon who nev­er returned. And in I Want To See (2008), it was our reac­tion to the July 2006 war between Israel and Lebanon, and the ques­tion of what images and cin­e­ma can do in these moments. Here we had extra­or­di­nar­i­ly detailed mate­r­i­al. We were inter­est­ed in mak­ing it into a fic­tion because we had to get away from the per­son­al aspect of it. We decid­ed to work with a scriptwriter who did not know Lebanon, and who had nev­er lived through a civ­il war. Mul­ti­ple axes were of our inter­est: the trans­mis­sion between three gen­er­a­tions and in par­al­lel, yesterday’s cor­re­spon­dence with today.”

Archival images from Mem­o­ry Box, J.H. & K.J., 2021.

Refer­ring to Mem­o­ry Box Jor­eige con­tin­ued, “The note­books are seen through Alex’s eyes, a young girl who rein­ter­prets the life of her teenage moth­er between imag­i­na­tion and real­i­ty. To do this, she relies on pho­tographs, most of which I took in the 1980s in Beirut and the 10,000 pho­tos we had to take for the film, in order to recon­struct every­thing. We want­ed to add a visu­al dimen­sion based on the pho­tos I had tak­en in the course of my ado­les­cence in Beirut, dur­ing the same time­frame. We each had expressed our­selves through the medi­um of our choice avail­able at the time, through our indi­vid­ual pas­sion. It seemed impor­tant for us to estab­lish the same dia­logue. We com­bined the two archives, our two stories.”

In this con­fu­sion of images from the present mixed with mem­o­ries from the past, remem­brance can become unsta­ble. Yet the vivid­ness of young Maia’s world, a chaot­ic uni­verse of vio­lence and dis­as­ter, punc­tu­at­ed by love and dreams, by pop music and friend­ship, is con­struct­ed with such inten­si­ty of expe­ri­ence that the tem­po­ral dis­tance from the view­er breaks down, and you can almost taste a chron­ic despair mixed with unend­ing desire.

Maia shares her trau­mat­ic expe­ri­ence, which cul­mi­nat­ed in an escape to Cana­da via Cyprus, with her daugh­ter: “From that point on, I don’t know. I can’t remem­ber. I don’t real­ly remem­ber things. Some­times I feel that I rein­vent things. I don’t know what’s real or false.” Young Maia, obsessed with pho­tog­ra­phy, snaps her last pic­ture of Beirut from the dis­tance, on a ship to safe­ty: “And my world van­ished for­ev­er.” Yet a dark secret remains untold.

The artists’ pre­vi­ous films about Lebanon reap­pear in Mem­o­ry Box as visu­al or tex­tu­al quo­ta­tions, cre­at­ing a thread of con­ti­nu­ity over time. While recount­ing her final years in Beirut, Maia utters the fol­low­ing sen­tence: “We were all look­ing for some­thing we’d lost.” This is para­phras­ing direct­ly from A Per­fect Day (2005), an ele­giac film about inten­tion­al amne­sia and lost love. A num­ber of visu­al alle­gories reap­pear here as well from oth­er films: fleet­ing lights sig­nalling rec­on­cil­i­a­tion with tragedy or the long shots of the Beirut cor­niche, sym­bol­iz­ing open-end­ed hope. The artist Rabih Mroué, pro­tag­o­nist and nar­ra­tor of I Want To See, returns to Mem­o­ry Box, in the sim­i­lar­ly enig­mat­ic role of Raja, the long lost love of Maia’s youth.

The transtem­po­ral knots between dif­fer­ent junc­tures of Had­jithomas and Joreige’s work, their archives, cin­e­mat­ic eyes, and con­ver­sa­tions with oth­ers, are so many that they can­not be mapped out accu­rate­ly, with­out falling into a cir­cle of confusion—the title of an ear­li­er pho­to­graph­ic work of theirs, read­ing Beirut as a body that is in per­pet­u­al muta­tion and movement.

For those famil­iar with their work, one of the most fas­ci­nat­ing nar­ra­tive moments in Mem­o­ry Box is the ani­mat­ed scenes, in which the pho­to­graph­ic images of Maia’s Beirut, become slow­ly burned on the edges, as the war begins to slow­ly con­sume the city. I believe this is a ref­er­ence to “Post­cards of War” (1997–2006), part of the project Won­der Beirut, con­sist­ing of a selec­tion of touris­tic images of Beirut tak­en between 1968 and 1969, by a fic­tion­al pho­tog­ra­ph­er, por­tray­ing the Beirut Cen­tral Dis­trict, the Lebanese Riv­iera and its lux­u­ry hotels; an idyl­lic, glam­or­ized idea of Lebanon in the 1960s. The images were then burned by the pho­tog­ra­ph­er him­self between 1975 and 1990, fol­low­ing the shelling and destruc­tion caused by the war in these loca­tions. These burned marks rep­re­sent, once again, the poten­tial col­lapse of his­tor­i­cal imagery, their poten­tial obsolescence.

How­ev­er, the top­ic of trans­mis­sion from grand­moth­er to moth­er to daugh­ter is indeed the most cru­cial aspect of the film. Each of the three tells her own sto­ry but at the same time weaves into the oth­ers. Fol­low­ing the cycle of life, one allows the dead to take the place of the liv­ing, and the oth­er way around. In this process they become able to see through each oth­er. But what hap­pens to this trans­mis­sion when the chains of images, mean­ings and expe­ri­ences that cre­ate bonds have been torn apart? If the image los­es its focus, and its con­text becomes ambigu­ous or goes miss­ing, the bond can­not be reconstructed.

 

Man­al Issa as young Maia Sanders, and Has­san Akil as Raja in Mem­o­ry Box.

 

Yet images and per­son­al sto­ries are not a series of freeze frames, and this is where the process of trans­mis­sion that Jor­eige told us about, encoun­ters his idea of archae­ol­o­gy: Accord­ing to con­tem­po­rary archae­ol­o­gists, every site is the accu­mu­la­tion of con­tin­u­ous activ­i­ty, with each event par­tial­ly or whol­ly eras­ing traces of ear­li­er events. Thus, our present is always replete with pasts mix­ing and fold­ing togeth­er. Gérard Chouqer coined the neol­o­gism trans­formis­sion, to refer to the mutu­al­ly con­sti­tu­tive and simul­ta­ne­ous process of trans­mis­sion and trans­for­ma­tion. Trans­mis­sion as trans­formis­sion means for us here, that the past is not a fos­sil aban­doned to emp­ty time, but some­thing that is active­ly mod­i­fied and changed over time, while it simul­ta­ne­ous­ly gives struc­ture to our present selves.

Near the end of the film, when Alex and Maia arrive in Beirut, the grand­moth­er calls on the phone and tells her grand­daugh­ter: “Alex, lis­ten, sweet­heart, take pho­tos of Beirut for me and of the sun too. Don’t for­get the sun!” This oth­er­wise casu­al request would go unno­ticed, except that the sun is a cen­tral fig­ure for Had­jithomas and Jor­eige. It is at the very heart of their ongo­ing project “I Stared at Beau­ty So Much.” The sun was also a cen­tral fea­ture in one of their major exhi­bi­tions, “Two Suns in a Sun­set” (2016), first shown at the Shar­jah Art Foun­da­tion, in which they moved away from the lit­er­al­ism of polit­i­cal nar­ra­tives and posi­tioned them­selves towards the light, towards the sun, and began to spec­u­late on oth­er pos­si­bil­i­ties of his­to­ry: Would it change if we nar­rat­ed it dif­fer­ent­ly? Can poet­ry help us make sense of dis­as­ter with­out rad­i­cal defeat? 

Had­jithomas told me in an inter­view we did at the time in Dubai: “When you super­im­pose so many tem­po­ral­i­ties, so many images, lit­tle by lit­tle, there is a kind of duplic­i­ty, so you have many suns appear­ing. Things were hap­pen­ing to some peo­ple; this idea of mul­ti­ple suns when you feel this chaot­ic time. It’s not only what’s hap­pen­ing to men; it’s affect­ing nature, it’s affect­ing the uni­verse, and it’s affect­ing every­thing.”         

The sun is the decid­ing ele­ment in the plot res­o­lu­tion of Mem­o­ry Box but it does­n’t bring any clo­sure — it is just the remote pos­si­bil­i­ty of light that stands in its place. In between so many apoc­a­lypses and dis­as­ters, Had­jithomas tells us now in recent con­ver­sa­tions where the mul­ti­ple suns have gone six years later:

“We fin­ished shoot­ing the film in May 2019, and start­ed edit­ing it in the midst of a rev­o­lu­tion, in the autumn of the same year. A rev­o­lu­tion against the cor­rupt and crim­i­nal lead­ers and against the bank­ing sys­tem that has tak­en the Lebanese peo­ple hostage. Of course, this res­onates in a trag­ic way, like a ter­ri­fy­ing mir­ror, with many pages from my note­books that are quot­ed in the film and which echo the vio­lence of the war, the cur­rent deval­u­a­tion of the Lebanese pound, the inse­cu­ri­ty, the despair and the sys­temic col­lapse of the coun­try; the temp­ta­tion and some­times even the ter­ri­ble oblig­a­tion of exile. And then there’s the trag­ic explo­sion of August 4th, which destroyed a third of the city, and a part of our lives. Every­one feels all the more strong­ly belong­ing to cycles of destruc­tion and recon­struc­tion, a per­pet­u­al cycli­cal motion. The film’s end­ing, with the idea of the sun set­ting and ris­ing again, and thus the start of new begin­nings, bright moments alter­nat­ing with dark ones. But there’s some­thing per­ma­nent, unchang­ing, like a cycle, after each cat­a­stro­phe, there’s a regen­er­a­tion. After each dis­as­ter, per­haps one can hope for a renew­al. You can see the sun set­ting or ris­ing. It’s a con­tin­u­ous cycle.”  

Upon her return to Beirut, Maia is faced with a Beirut that is new—the cen­tral dis­trict has been recon­struct­ed and in the process, her fam­i­ly home has van­ished to make place for a lux­u­ry build­ing. We as view­ers know that it is also just about to be destroyed once again. And through this con­spic­u­ous knowl­edge, the light of the sun becomes dou­bly haunt­ing. It’s almost as if we don’t want to see it, as if we don’t want to accept that this beau­ty is pos­si­ble at all. But in spite of the redemp­tive promise of this metaphor, Maia doesn’t find closure—her home has been destroyed and they’re unable to locate the graves of her father and broth­er in the ceme­tery. Maybe it’s bet­ter to not find clo­sure at a time like this, before anoth­er fall? Yet, the artists remain con­vinced of the pow­er of human encounters.

Had­jithomas con­cludes our most recent conversation:

“The end of the film appears since then as a dream, a kind of sci­ence fic­tion; the dream of a return to the com­mu­ni­ty, to a coun­try that has been rebuilt in order to be destroyed again today. And again, as in the film, exile is at the cen­tre of our lives. The last part of the film also tells the fan­ta­sy of a return at a time when the major­i­ty of peo­ple of all gen­er­a­tions are leav­ing the coun­try. It’s true that Maia does not find her home, nor the graves of her broth­er and father, nor the Beirut she once knew. But in a small coun­try, some reunions are pos­si­ble, like the one with her friends of yes­ter­day, with her great love Raja, their ties are renewed despite the lost youth. Maia finds again loved faces, an ener­gy, just for one evening, just one… Like a paren­the­sis. When Maia returns to Beirut, there’s a con­fronta­tion between fan­ta­sy, imag­i­na­tion, mem­o­ries and the present. This con­fronta­tion opens a new rela­tion to a past his­to­ry, yet with­out resolv­ing it. The past is eva­sive, slip­ping away. How­ev­er, there was a trans­mis­sion and a form of rec­on­cil­i­a­tion. There was the pos­si­bil­i­ty to relieve some of the grief, and to become recep­tive to the joy of being reunit­ed. The film also relates a return to the present once the past has been evoked, unearthed, and brought out of its laten­cy. It is a polit­i­cal and vital choice to be able to not end a film from the region in a dra­mat­ic way even if the trag­ic vio­lence and chaos even­tu­al­ly catch up with us. In the pro­found dis­tress that is ours, we can’t give in to absolute despair, as we so des­per­ate­ly need light. Indeed, There will be light promis­es a song at the end of the film…”

 

BeirutBeirut port explosiondisasterLebanese civil warmemoryrenewal

Arie Amaya-Akkermans is an art critic and writer based in Istanbul, formerly Beirut and Moscow. His work is mostly concerned with the relationship between archaeology, classical antiquity and modern culture in the Eastern Mediterranean, with an emphasis on contemporary art. His byline has appeared previously on Hyperallergic, the San Francisco Arts Quarterly, Canvas, Harpers Bazaar Art Arabia, and he is a regular contributor for the popular Classics blog Sententiae Antiquae. Previously, he was a guest editor of Arte East Quarterly, a recipient of an experts fellowship from IASPIS, Stockholm, and a moderator in the talks program of Art Basel.