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Memory Cards

About this film

A missing female writer, memories of her, of her thoughts on Africa, on the West, on the role of the camera, Rwanda - there are ghosts in every scene of Piotr Cieplak’s remarkable Memory Cards, part film-essay, part first-person film. Through (supposedly) found footage taken by the female writer, Cieplak creates a piece which asks a lot of questions, questions that concern representation, that concern the ownership of images, perhaps even the ownership of memories, and invites the viewer to reflect upon them. Representational discrepancies between the West and Africa surface time and again, asking us to rethink what we see and what we know, what it means to different people in different contexts. Cieplak taps into important ethical aspects of filmmaking and its representational function, which make for an essential and compelling viewing.

Nadin Mai (tao films)

Interview with the Director
Piotr, I find that your film has multiple layers to it, so maybe we can peel off some layers together in this interview. First of all, I’d like to know where the idea for this film came from.

It came from my trips to Africa, and from watching and writing about films from and about the continent. I found that I was critiquing other people’s films for how they represented Rwanda, and Africa more generally. So I wondered what would happen if I turned this kind scrutiny on myself. I’ve always been interested in issues of memory, appropriation of experience, permission and essentialism (especially when it comes to Western portrayals of Africa), so I also wanted to find a project that would allow me to explore them both formally and narratively.

The idea of a missing female writer (who claims to know Africa well) was present from the early days of the project but took a more concrete shape on the beaches of Zanzibar – which I found both very beautiful and strange and liminal places. The other characters (the narrators, so to speak) came later and allowed me to present different potential perspectives on the footage. The filmmaking process for Memory Cards was unusual – for me at least. I had the idea first, then took the trip and recorded the images. I let them lie for a good year and only then started to write the script.

Formally, Memory Cards is indebted to the film-essay and first-person film (in particular Chris Marker, Agnes Varda and Patrick Keiller). I wanted it to explore the idea of found, reclaimed footage and personal archive and use it to probe the boundary between documentary and fiction. Real-life images of Rwanda and Zanzibar are narrated by fictional characters, who talk about the journey of another fictional character. Contrasting the eerie beauty of the Zanzibari beach and the saturated greenery of the Rwandan hills with the graininess, shakiness and arguable “ugliness” of the footage, gets at what we tend to perceive as “authentic” or “real” and, hopefully, makes the viewer question what it means to “own” images.

Lastly, I wanted to find a way to directly address the representational imbalance between Africa and the West, especially in the context of permission, and cultural and memorial appropriation. Why and how Africa becomes a backdrop for a Western story? Where does the filmmaker decide to point the camera, and for what reasons?

But, of course, the film commits most of the representational sins it criticizes.

Right at the beginning, the voiceover says: “This camera is just for looking”, speaking in the context of turning images into a film. There is this pull between simply looking and actually creating, forming something out of what you see instead of letting it be. What’s the meaning of a film camera? Is it a tool for looking? For making? For creating memories?

An excellent question. And one I am not sure I can answer. One of the things I wanted to test with Memory Cards is the connection between themes of loss, memory and disappearance and raw, “amateur” digital image aesthetics in relation to notions of truth and authenticity. We seem to be so obsessed with truth and facts (or their lack and fallibility) that subjectivity, and especially memorial subjectivity, become almost tarnished concepts (there’s a wonderfully pithy Kracauer quote about memory being full of pot-holes when compared with photography). I am not advocating the abandonment of the idea of truth (especially in the era of fake news – although it’s not an unproblematic term for me). I suppose I wanted Memory Cards to engage with the various ways in which images and their meaning depend on the beholder as much as the person who captured them.

“You wanted something in front of your face so people knew you were looking.” This is one of the most striking statements in your film, and one that I will never forget because it resonates so strongly with our current development as a society. It reminds me of “36”, a Thai film by Nawapol Thamrongrattanarit, who worked on the idea of a camera replacing our looking, replacing our memories. Once the digital memory is erased (by accident), we can no longer remember, so to speak.

Yes, for me, this connects with the previous statement. There is a feeling amongst many Rwandans I speak to (especially those involved in image-production) that they are being observed by the outside world as a curious phenomenon. I don’t mean to suggest paranoia here. What I mean is that it’s important to recognize that looking and representing (when it comes to things like the genocide but also Africa’s colonial legacy more generally) are not neutral or passive (even though they are often presented as such); they’re moral acts and have implications. This could mean a number of things: looking away when the genocide was happening, looking in on the various narratives that emerged later on (I mean the big blockbusters about the genocide) or scrutinizing the continent as a point of anthropological interest (early African filmmakers already took issue with that).

So in the film this is a way for the missing woman to try and become more honest; to no longer disguise the act of observation and, in many ways, stealing stories and experiences. It backfires though.

I would like to speak about where the film is set, namely Rwanda, which seems to play quite a large role in your work in general. What is it that captures your interest to the extent that you keep returning to it?

Like many other people, I came to be interested in Rwanda because of the genocide (as a PhD student first and as a filmmaker and writer later). I’ve been working on projects connected with the country for more than a decade now (although my latest film, The Faces We Lost, is probably my last project set in Rwanda for a long while).

This also writes itself into my broader interest in the connection between image and memory (all kinds: personal and collective; actual and imagined etc).

The reason why I keep going back to Rwanda is also quite pragmatic. By now, I know the terrain and the issues well and I think that if one is working with an issue as tremendous and sensitive as the genocide, it’s imperative to truly study and know the subject. You can’t just turn up and make a film (you can, of course, but that’s not how I would want to work).

Having said that, I don’t really see Memory Cards as one of my Rwandan projects. It’s slightly different; more abstract in its focus and trying to make a wider point about what it means to look, not look and remember.

You make the point in your film that once locals began to tell their stories, they realised that there was only one story: genocide. Can you tell us a little more about this?

There’s an odd paradox (perhaps it isn’t that odd at all) in the relationship between the genocide and film, or even images more generally, in Rwanda. On the one hand, the genocide has been branded ‘a genocide without images’. This usually refers to images of the actual genocidal killings. I believe only one piece of footage exists – showing the death of 3 people. That’s pretty incredible when you think that between 800,000 and a million people were killed. In reality, it’s not that unusual – many genocides lack image-based documentation (especially those before the advent of mobile phones and social media). There are many reasons for this but I don’t want get into those here.

Anyway, so there was the lack of images on the one hand and then, on the other, the genocide has been known through images of after the genocide, of which there have been plenty: photographs of refugees (in the immediate aftermath of the genocide), of piles of corpses, of mass graves and (later) survivor portraiture; and then there were the big-budget films such as Hotel Rwanda which really put the genocide on the informational map.

Now, the films had many problems: from historical accuracy to the way they represented the victims and the perpetrators to distinctly Western perspectives (often including a white character at the centre of the story – like in Shooting Dogs).

So Rwandan filmmakers clocked the fact that if they didn’t start telling the story of the genocide, someone else would do it in a particular way. There was this surge of activity that resulted in quite a few films (Kivu Ruhorahoza’s Grey Matter by far the best, I think). But then it became increasingly difficult to get funding to make films about anything not related to the genocide. There was this expectation that if you’re Rwandan, this is your topic. The strategy didn’t exactly backfire but one set of limitations turned into another.

This isn’t a uniquely Rwandan problem, of course. Because of the funding structures and a number of other imbalances, African filmmakers have always had all these expectations on them as to what they should be doing and what “issues” they should be tackling. I know that many find this frustrating. So this is what that line in the film hints at.

There is also a great point about time in the film, which I find fascinating. Yes, there is this idea that time is different in Africa. Time appears to be slower, but in fact, it isn't, or rather it is our time that it different. I have just written a blog post in which I mention that time is indeed slower in the mountains. It may sound weird, but it has been proven by scientific experiments. So, what is time then? It is not as universal as it seems to be.

Yes, time in film is a fascinating thing for me. I always try to play around with it in my stories – and especially in Memory Cards. I feel like it has particularly strong resonance here because of the presence of trauma – which so often disturbs linear and chronological time as we know it.

But if I am honest, this line mostly refers to this practice – which has now been going on for centuries – of white European or North American (not exclusively but mostly) men making these general proclamations about “Africa” which are presented as universal truths but, in reality, are based on nothing more than their singular, subjective experiences. This is a particularly ridiculous comment (laden with colonial and neo-colonial connotations) as the perception of time is such a subjective thing.

I didn’t know about time and mountains but it sounds fascinating. I look forward to reading the post.

I know that you're currently preparing a screening in Rwanda of The Faces We Lost, another film set in the country. When will this be and are you currently working on another project?

Yes, The Faces We Lost is a more traditional documentary film about the way Rwandans use personal, family album photographs to remember and commemorate those who died in 1994 genocide. The idea is to show that people in the country are active consumers of images (in the memorial sense) rather than just their subjects (often anonymous) – as tends to be the case in many international photographic and filmic representations of the genocide.

The film is currently on the festival circuit but the screenings in Rwanda (which are happening in June) will be slightly different. One of my frustrations with a lot of filmmaking done in Rwanda, and Africa more generally, is that stories rarely filter back from where they originate. I acknowledge that there are many complex reasons for that. So the screenings are a way to make the film a little more present in Rwanda.

The next project... it’s all still very speculative. I am looking into a couple of stories in Argentina around similar themes of memory and image (but also cityscape and architecture).