Grant Gee’s Innocence of Memories is a multilayered exploration of the innovative novel Museum of Innocence by the Turkish Nobel prize-winning writer Orhan Pamuk.
Night at the Museumby Laura Bennett
CAUTION: Here be spoilers
In the wake of Patience (After Sebald), Gee’s take on the work of the Anglo-German writer and academic W.G. Sebald, Innocence of Memories is a fascinating meditation on Orhan Pamuk’s Museum of Innocence, an experimental novel set in Istanbul and brought to life by a real museum.
Known first and foremost for his music videos and documentaries, Gee’s Innocence of Memories is a film of voices and images. The narration is provided by Ayla and Kemal, who recount the story of the 2008 novel, Museum of Innocence, in which Kemal falls in love with the young shop assistant Füsun on the eve of his wedding to Sibel. The third recurring voice is that of the book’s author, Orhan Pamuk, taken from archive interview clips in which he discusses the novel and his enduring love affair with the city of his birth. Images are similarly interwoven. When Kemal and Füsun’s love story comes to an end, Kemal suffers greatly but is able to alleviate his grief by remembering every detail of their liaison and collecting any objects with a link to their relationship, “artefacts of intimacy” such as lost earrings, cigarette butts, shoes, newspapers, maps, etc. Even the most apparently meaningless items have a story to tell.
These fetish objects are displayed in the real-life yet fictional museum opened by Pamuk in 2012 in a once neglected but now thriving corner of the Turkish capital. A piece of conceptual art described by Pamuk as “a little museum of fiction and a museum of 20th-century life in Istanbul”, it is now a popular tourist attraction, frequented both by devotees of the novel and those oblivious to it. Gee pairs an exploration of the museum backed by a retelling of Kemal and Füsun’s doomed love affair with mesmerising images of an evocative night-time journey through the streets of a seemingly deserted Istanbul, inhabited only by packs of stray dogs and the occasional nocturnal worker.
Again blurring the boundaries between art and fiction, Ayla recalls in her narration having been told by Pamuk that “a city will be a museum for our memories if we live in it long enough”. With its long and famously intricate history behind it, modern-day Istanbul faces a changing future that will inevitably lead to the obscuring of elements of its past. Pamuk speaks of having lived in Istanbul for 62 years, claiming that such a long experience of a city means that every corner becomes a link to your memory, like an index. New buildings, closed shops, felled trees and redirected roads erase those memories as new inhabitants flow into the city, which changes with each new generation.
Writing, memory and architecture continue to merge as the love story between Kemal and Füsun reaches its tragic conclusion. When Füsun is killed in a car accident that mimics the death of her favourite actress Grace Kelly, the audience/reader/museum visitor is left wondering how much is memory and how much is fiction. Devastated by her death, Kemal buys the house in which he had visited Füsun for many years and converts it into a museum, the Museum of Innocence.
At times as complex at the city of Istanbul itself and at others deceptively simple, Innocence of Memories begs the question of whether our own memories can be seen as a film. If we were to hoard the minutiae of our existence for future generations, could we imagine that visitors would one day come to explore a museum of our own lives? Themes of changing female identity and Turkish culture are also raised by the film, novel and museum, while Ara Güler’s photography captures the evolving city, highlighting the advancing influence of Western modernity during the 1970s, in which the story of Kemal and Füsun’s affair is set.
A beautifully shot film that draws the viewer into an intense world that may sometimes appear hard to navigate by those unfamiliar with Pamuk’s novel, Innocence of Memories is ultimately an extremely successful patchwork of screen, page and exhibition space. Although absorbing in its own right, it will also have many reaching for the bookshelf to read Pamuk’s story or planning a visit to Istanbul’s living, breathing Museum of Innocence.
Innocence of Memories is released on 29th January 2016 in the UK