Life is experiential. Every life is an experience. What sounds pretty simple, is incredibly difficult to acknowledge. Really acknowledge, take it in, and live by it. We are so busy all the time that we forget to feel life. And once we do feel it, we tend to drown it quickly with something else. Trying to escape the feeling of our raison d’être. At some point in our life, we ask ourselves the famous and also scary question: why am I here? What is my aim, what is my raison d’être?
Memoria is the raison d’être that we seek. Memoria is a haptic film, it is a sensual film, it is all about experiencing what we see and hear. This “rumble from the core of the Earth” is our raison d’être.
To experience — this is our raison d’être.
We’re asked to be and to experience life.
Thai director Apichatpong Weerasethakul has traditionally merged the world of the living and the world of the dead. What has been, never really passes. Loved ones who have died stay with us in the here and now. Decisions taken in the past have ramifications for the future.
Dreams are a sphere where all timelines become one. No hard lines, no hard borders. Just the Gegenwart, which is often translated as ‘the present’, albeit I find the German term more suitable. Perhaps it is because I’m not an English native speaker that I have different connotations for these two words. ‘The present’ has a temporal connotation, whereas ‘Gegenwart’ is much more spatial for me. I’m present, yes, but I’m present somewhere.
This, too, is Memoria. It’s a film about space, about a sound that originates in an unknown space, somewhere in the depth of Jessica’s soul. Or is it Hernán’s?
Is it ours?
With Memoria, Apichatpong begins a new chapter in his work as director. It’s his first English-language work, and his first feature film shot outside Thailand. Colombia acted as a backdrop, a country with a rich history of ancient tribes, of indigenous communities that disappeared under Western colonisation. Yet, their souls remained.
“I remember everything,” Hernán says, “that’s why I don’t need to go anywhere.” Engrained memories, entrenched in the body. Hernán picks up a pebble and tells Jessica that it would contain the story of a young man who was beaten up by a group of other men. The pebble holds the memory of what happened. Everything around us holds memories: the tree in your garden; the cliffs along the coastal path you walked last summer; the soothing sea that you love to watch; the leaves that fall in the autumn.
“What about television?” Jessica asks, not quite seriously, however. Jessica is changing, just like the film is changing over time. She becomes more and more timeless while remaining in the same space.
Being present in space. Jessica finds herself in spaces of memory. Memories, too, are timeless. But they are anchored in space. The Colombian jungle; Bogotá, the country’s capital; the university hospital — they are all memory spaces which Jessica traverses.
“I think I’m going crazy.”
A loud bang wakes up Jessica in the early morning. It’s quiet all around, but for this one bang. When she asks her sister’s husband if they had a construction site next to their house (where she stays for the time being), he said ‘no’. The loud bang must have simply been a reaction of her body to the new environment, he insinuates.
The bang is unexpected, frightening. It’s deep and dark, almost like a drum. It’s otherworldly. Jessica is in search for meaning. She doesn’t sleep. She hears and feels unidentified sounds. She is not at ease where she is. Something holds her tight, so much so that she struggles to breathe.
Jessica looks for the sound, wants to replicate it. Maybe this would help her identify its origins?
Apichatpong’s Memoria takes on an interesting structure around half-way through the film. What started off as Jessica’s search of the bang’s origins, turns into an exploration of the soul. The horizontal gives way to the vertical. It is this very structure that, I believe, makes Memoria stand out from previous films by the director. Literally and spiritually, the film journeys to the core of the Earth.
There are ongoing excavations, which Jessica is fascinated with. 6.000-year-old bones of people found during the drilling of a tunnel. A hole in the head of a girl, drilled to release bad spirits. It is here, in the tunnel, that the films takes a different direction. It’s going south, it’s going into unknown depths that demand to be explored.
Jessica remembers. She begins to remember fractions from her childhood, but she cannot create a complete image. One day, she sits in a doctor’s office. Maybe Xanax would help? Maybe she is going crazy. Maybe she is imaging all of this. After all, she isn’t sleeping. This could explain what’s going on, no?
“Jesus is at your side,” the doctor says with a smile and hands her a brochure.
Anti-anxiety medication. Alcohol. Two great inventions by mankind, thinks Jessica when she is with Hernán in the jungle. He’s scraping the scales of the freshly caught fish while she watches him and thinks that medication and alcohol can at least soothe stirred-up thoughts and memories. They can be as calming as a lullaby.
“These are not your memories,” Hernán says to Jessica.
The first dream I remember was, in fact, a nightmare. I woke up scared. I was still very young and shared a room with my sister. I dreamt of airplanes dropping bombs on cities. I dreamt of war. At that age, I had no idea what war was. I might have never even heard of the word before. I was too small. Where did this dream come from?
These were not my memories. These were not my dreams. They belonged to someone else, perhaps to my grandparents, or to someone else in my family who lived (and died?) during the war. I didn’t know this at the time. I learned about it two or three years ago.
Memoria is about the memories that everything around us holds. Hernán speaks of vibrations. Vibrations telling a story. In fact, these vibrations that emanate from everywhere have so much to say that he doesn’t need television. He doesn’t need to travel somewhere else to hunt for new, interesting stories. It is all there: in the pebbles, in the river, in the grass. But one needs to be receptive. One needs to be an antenna, just like Jessica, who doesn’t know of her role, who isn’t aware of the treasures that she receives. And who wants to drown everything out.
This bang at the beginning of the film is in all of us. It is the sound of what has been long before we were born. It is the sound of our subconscious, it is the sound of a search for meaning. It is the sound of lives lived, if only we were to listen.
“You have to learn to listen to understand my films,” Apichatpong said in an interview with French newspaper Libération. There’s no better film to illustrate this than Memoria. And there is no other film by Joe that demands a second viewing, and a third one; no other film that seeks to connect the past and the present in one sphere so successfully, albeit in a very challenging way.
Memoria can be a meaningless film, just like a simple pebble appears meaningless to you. But when you listen to the vibrations, it’s a whole different story.