Berlinale 2021 review: Memory Box (Joana Hadjithomas & Khalil Joreige)

When a large and mysterious package arrives on teenager Alex’s doorstep on Christmas Eve, her grandma (Clémence Sabbagh) tries to get rid of it as soon as she sees the sender’s address, before her daughter Maia (Rim Turki) comes home. Alex (Paloma Vauthier) instinctively feels that the contents of the box are tied to a family trauma that both older women tried to leave behind when they fled from war-torn Beirut during the Lebanese civil war in the ’80s. Even though Maia explicitly forbids Alex to look at what’s inside, the girl sneaks down to the basement and uncovers what her mother so desperately tries to hide from her, hoping to fill in a gap in her mother’s history. What she finds is a heap of notebooks, photos, and cassette tapes that a young Maia (Manal Issa) sent to her best friend Liza after the latter had left Lebanon for France, while Maia was living her teenage years in a city in the midst of chaos. Alex learns about her mother’s smoking habits, her first great love Raja (Hassan Akil), the typical adolescent fights with her parents, and everything else teen girls share with their best friend (which is basically everything). But as her reports become more grim, with shelling of Beirut intensifying, Alex gets closer to a dark family secret.

Multi-talented artists Joana Hadjithomas and Khalil Joreige have always in their works had a keen interest in how memories shape the images and documents we create and vice versa. Memory Box has a strong autobiographical angle, as the core idea of correspondence between a Lebanese girl and her friend abroad through written and audiovisual documents is essentially the story of a young Hadjithomas as she herself was living through Lebanon’s devastating civil war. Family history was altered, but a lot of the notebooks and photos seen in the film are the director’s own. This gives Memory Box a deeply personal touch, and one can feel that in the loving, but also at times harrowing and deeply honest depiction of a teenage girl who just wants to live and love carefree, but whose life was thrown upside down by war, the trauma of which is another constant in the director duo’s previous works.

Those previous works not only include film, but other visual arts as well. And that influence shows once Alex has opened the metaphorical Pandora’s Box. As she goes through all that is inside and pieces together her mother’s younger years, this is brought to life in a very creative collage of visual styles and techniques, using animation, time lapses, and effects work to conjure up a complete image from a single photo here or a few lines of text there, all to the beat of an infectious ’80s soundtrack (special shoutout to Visage’s Fade to Grey, its title itself a thematic nod of sorts). This makes for a highly dynamic and vibrant film early on, as we see an upbeat teenage life develop in front of us. Once the bombing intensifies the story gets darker though, and the scrapbook tone of the film makes way for sombre, more ‘serious’ cinema. In this section in particular, Issa as young Maia shines in a strong, rebellious performance.

Having Alex and younger Maia’s stories unfold side by side leads Memory Box to interesting juxtapositions and parallels in teenage life decades apart, especially where communication with friends is concerned. Where Maia and Liza communicated through notebooks and tapes, Alex and her friends have the faster but also more fleeting avenue of WhatsApp or Instagram at their disposal, which Hadjithomas and Joreige visualize just as vividly as they do the correspondence of the mother. Both mother (then) and daughter continuously document their surroundings, through which they shape their own history and memories. Their mode of documenting, however, is different, and this influences how it shapes their history. Writing journals and using an old-fashioned camera is different from snapping pics on your phone and sending quick messages over social media, leading to a vast disparity in volume of history and memory. And what is in the box is also more tangible than what is on Alex’s phone. Yet despite these differences, it also underlines the similarities between mother and daughter when in their teens, both fond of using cameras and both feeling the need to preserve their memories.

The similarities end with Maia’s experiences as the war intensifies. As the focus shifts towards her story in the third act, Memory Box takes a more dramatic turn but also gives way to discovering how memories can be erased and altered when Maia and Alex travel to Lebanon. The film ends on an unabashedly happy and sentimental note, with the bond between them strengthening through Maia finally being able to share the scars from her youth and come to terms with those darker pages in her past. In that sense, Memory Box‘s screenplay is perhaps the most straightforward aspect of the film, mostly coloring inside the lines, but the emotional catharsis is earned because of the intelligent and intricate way it presents its ideas about memories and the way we shape them. Furthermore, it keeps the film accessible and relatable, and combined with a strong set of performances this should make Memory Box play well with general audiences.