We eat with the dead and ghosts.
Christmas Eve was supposed to be a nice quiet evening for three generations of women: Alex (Paloma Vauthier), her mother Maia (Rim Turki), and her grandmother Téta (Clémence Sabbagh). Like has been happening so often, however, the youngest found herself home alone. Mom was working. Téta had yet to arrive. Alex was left wondering what her father and his new family were doing while conversing with friends via a group chat on her phone. And then a package arrives from Lebanon with a name she has never heard before. By that time Téta had arrived with kibbeh and grapeleaves to start rolling cigars and she quickly tells her granddaughter that they must hide the box before Maia comes home. She says the secrets inside will only bring pain.
Perhaps she’s correct in that assessment considering they were sent by the family of Maia’s recently deceased childhood friend, but the mix of notebooks, cassettes, and photographs also hold memories of love, passion, and happiness despite the environment from which they came. While bombs were falling and militias occupied checkpoints during the Lebanese Civil War, Maia (Manal Issa in flashbacks) was trying to be a teen. She’d sneak out to dance with friends and go to movies. She’d lie about studying to make out with her boyfriend Raja (Hassan Akil). And she’d return home to an angry mother and relieved father who had already lost their son to the fighting. Maia documented it all—her dreams amidst the chaos in Beirut—for her BFF currently living in France.
The concept isn’t a fiction. Joana Hadjithomas (who co-directs with her husband and artistic partner Khalil Joreige, the pair co-writing with Gaëlle Macé) did the same thing between 1982 and 1988 while she remained in Lebanon. She and her friend would capture their lives in whatever medium was at their disposal and mail the ephemera off to the other. They thankfully were able to meet again years later to discover they had both retained every bit of the correspondence to swap and let it all flood back. Hadjithomas and Joreige didn’t see the war itself in those documents, but they did see the remnants of it through her younger self’s eyes. Memory Box was therefore born in that spirit, fictionalized to center the tragic horrors other survivors endured.
Where Hadjithomas and Joreige ultimately decided they could share those memories with their child, Maia and Téta are vehement in their refusal to even broach the subject where it concerns Alex’s obvious intrigue. Too much had happened to them. Not only had Maia’s brother been killed, but so had her father—his death the final straw to send mother and daughter to Cyprus en route to Canada, where they live now to celebrate the holidays under a blizzard of snow. There was also the gradual dissolution of hope. Liza coming back to have fun during summers in the knowledge she’d be escaping again once vacation ends. Raja becoming more radicalized about protecting his country. Maia’s father growing disillusioned about education remaining an effective form of resistance.
So, Alex does what any frustrated teen would. She goes through the keepsakes anyway. Stealing a book and some tapes at a time to read and listen in her room while Maia is out or sleeping. It opens her up to a foreign world that neither her mother nor grandmother truly talked about. She learns about Maia’s wish to be a photographer. That she smoked. That she had hopes and dreams. It’s an image that Alex can’t reconcile with the person she knows and, perhaps by gaining this insight, she’ll discover why. Because more than the “old days,” whether good or bad or both, those memories are also everything she lost. Her father. Her home. Her country. Maia and Téta needed to leave it behind to start anew.
Hadjithomas and Joreige merge reality with fiction by using their own photographs and writings amidst those created in their mold with the actors. The notebooks are a delight of found objects, accordion folds, and collage that put adventures in-motion two-dimensionally on the page and three-dimensionally via flashbacks. Many visually stunning moments are born from the juxtaposition too. One sees Issa and Akil running towards each other, their bodies masked out from their backgrounds by a geometric outline to then be superimposed upon still images taken of Beirut during the 80s. And I loved another scene of the same actors riding a motorcycle at night as the orange of explosions and white of missiles flying ignite behind them to simultaneously depict the fire of war and romance.
There are also the hidden secrets this treasure trove cannot expose on its own. The reasons why Maia stopped writing her friend and why Téta is willing to see it all destroyed before opened. This is where Memory Box shines because it gets to the heart of the PTSD so many survivors of these nightmares combat. It ends up being less about not wanting Alex to learn about their history than it is not wanting to re-learn it themselves. They are so far removed and so entrenched in the sanitized version of reality they’ve built as a defense that one photo can unearth a world of hurt. And it does. When Alex finally gets Maia to understand the importance of knowing what really happened, there’s no turning back.
Credit the filmmakers for going to those darker places with the impossibility of living through so much death and destruction. None of it is necessarily surprising, but it’s all depicted with an authenticity that honors the sacrifices made. And give them credit for deciding that letting that pain out and realizing they don’t have to battle it alone can lead to happy endings too. Because Beirut was rebuilt. Many of the people Maia loved in her youth are still there. Once you confront the demons you had to lock away to stay sane, the path back becomes visible again. Most of the film teaches us how alike Maia and Alex are if they allow themselves to recognize it. It’s only fitting then that the conclusion lets them.
© Haut et Court, Abbout Productions, micro_scope