Credit: Haut et Court / Abbout Prod. / Micro_Scope
by Morris Yang Featured Film Horizon Line

Memory Box — Joana Hadjithomas & Khalil Joreige

August 2, 2022

An ill-conceived inertia plagues Memory Box, and its magical-sounding title only barely conceals the roteness of its center.

In Sophy Romvari’s Still Processing, an intensely personal diary of remembrance and catharsis, the director receives a box of photographs taken during her childhood with her three brothers, two of whom have since passed away. The negatives, stored away for many years, now see the light of day; they are brought into the darkroom to be processed, the reality of their images finally realized for the eye. “There are some things that cannot be said out loud,” Romvari writes, the kernel of her grief slowly easing only since, and with the emotional support of her remaining brother. Hence, the photos speak for themselves: close-up portraits of the siblings, wide-eyed and candid, recall a time lost to the present in all but memory, one the viewer has the privilege of witnessing but not experiencing.

Romvari’s piercingly beautiful short achieves, in seventeen minutes, an authenticity that eludes the languorous hundred of Memory Box, the latest from filmmaking duo Joana Hadjithomas and Khalil Joreige. The latter’s premise, arguably, is the same: a collection of memorabilia arrives on the doorstep of teenage Alex (Manal Issa), belonging to Maia (Rim Turki), her mother. Living an ordinary life in the suburbs of Montreal, far from the war-torn Lebanon she fled years prior, Maia has largely avoided her past, whether in remembrance or recounting. Somewhat inexplicably, Alex’s insatiable curiosity outweighs all sense of propriety; against Maia’s wishes, she intrudes upon her private life, peeling away the covers of scrapbooks and cassette tapes to uncover her memories etched within. Snapping pictures of them on her phone, speculating with her schoolmates on her mother’s first love and shared fondness for photography, and reading up on the attacks that killed both her own uncle and grandfather, Alex assumes a voyeuristic role in the examination of this personal history, attempting to reconcile with what ultimately does not belong to her.

An ill-conceived inertia plagues this work of semi-autobiography, “freely adapted” from Hadjithomas’ own correspondence between the years of 1982 and 1988. Utilizing quirky photographic manipulation and febrile trifles that unquestioningly serve as pastiches of Maia’s repressed adolescence, Hadjithomas and Joreige construe out of the fragments a fictionalized series of conceptual and emotional platitudes, sullying the rich prospects their intimate provenance could have afforded. This observation, however, links to an important question about Memory Box concerning its perspective: are we looking at one’s self-reckoning, or watching the generation after appropriate the former’s? On either count, the self-satisfied statements from mother (“we’re all lost, longing for ideals”) and daughter (shamelessly accusatory: “All your life is a lie!”) go off with a whimper, and the film pads their threadbare psychological characterization with little more than irksome nonchalance. “Trauma,” notes Romvari, “is relative; it can bond the ones who share it, or break them apart.” In Memory Box’s case, its magical-sounding title conceals the roteness of its false catharsis; the stills bond and break, but only superficially, as they have already been processed for the viewer.

Originally published as part of Berlin Film Festival 2021 — Dispatch 6.