BFI LFF 2021: Memory Box

A Memory Box triggers delayed reconciliation between past and present in Joana Hadjithomas’s deeply personal, emotional intergenerational drama.

Past and Present

by Alexa Dalby

Memory Box

CAUTION: Here be spoilers

Memory Box is a lovely female-centred film about unpicking three generations of family secrets, grounded in the timely theme of how to make a new life in a foreign country.

It opens in a snowy Montreal at Christmastime. Out of the blue, a huge box is delivered from France addressed to Lebanese Maia (Rim Turki), who lives with her very Canadian teenage daughter Alex (Paloma Vauthier). Maia’s mother, Alex’s stylish grandmother Teta (Clemence Sabbagh), hides the box as she knows it will upset Maia.

It turns out to be a Pandora’s box of memories that Alex can’t resist opening, packed with her mother’s vivid teenage diaries, notebooks, letters and audio cassettes that she sent to her girlhood close friend Liza after Liza’s family moved from Beirut to Paris to escape Lebanon’s civil war in the 1980s. Maia had never talked about her life before she moved to Canada:she still has to come to terms with the past and Alex has to known her own heritage.

Co-director Joana Hadjithomas uses mesmerising technical tricks – cleverly editing (Tina Baz) between animation, dramatised reconstruction and music – to reveal Alex discovering bit by bit, as she empties the box, the wartime life of her teenage mother (played by Manal Issa in flashbacks) and her parents amid assassinations, first love, bombs, discos and militia checkpoints.

The dramas of civil war are a telling contrast to the first-world life the three women lead now – the colour palette moves between the golden warmth that transfuses the colours of Lebanon even in traumatic wartime flashbacks, and the chilly but clear blues of their contemporary, safe wintry home in Quebec. The question is, what would it be like to return now?

Memory Box is always surprising. A story told in French and Arabic, it is satisfying and emotive without being sentimental, with wonderful nuanced performances from all three women. Well worth seeing.

Memory Box premiered at the Berlin Film Festival and screened at the BFI London Film Festival.

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