Wednesday, 24 June 2015

EIFF: La Danza del Hipocampo (Gabriela Domínguez Ruvalcaba, 2014)

"Like salt in the sea, we are made of an infinite number of moments"
    La Danza del Hipocampo / The Dance of the Memory (Gabriela Domínguez Ruvalcaba, 2014) screened at the Edinburgh Film Festival as part of the Focus on Mexico strand. Structured around the question of which seven memories you would use to sum up your life (our short term memory can only hold seven items), Gabriela Domínguez Ruvalcaba's essay film delves into her long term memory (located in the hippocampus) and personal family archives for a lyrical meditation on the meaning and formation of memories.
    The film includes an exploration of the fragility of memory formation and maintenance, i.e. the biology of it - the haphazard nature of electrical impulses (memory effectively exists in voids or, from another perspective, fills them) and the fact that of the five senses, taste and smell are also stored in the hippocampus (hence those Proustian rushes of memory that can be triggered by flavours and scents). But the director concentrates on our efforts to 'fix' memories in place through the use of visual mementoes and recordings, described within the film as "leaving breadcrumbs through time" - the physical traces that we use to find our way back into the past. She also looks at how - in the accumulation of moments that make up this "intimate cartography" of selfhood - we co-opt the memories of those close to us.

All images taken from the trailer
    Every family has shared experiences - stories that are retold over and over, running jokes, and significant moments that crystallise a given event - but we don't need to be present at all of them for them to in some way shape us. Hence Domínguez Ruvalcaba decides that one of her seven memories will be one that actually belongs to her grandfather - it is not an experience that she has lived (and it is not technically her memory) but, in the telling of it, her grandfather has made it part of the fabric of her identity and that of her family. Family is important to the director and central to her film. As she goes back into her past, she relies on home movie footage - an uncle who worked in film "dedicated himself to making a 'behind the scenes' of his own life" resulting in a copious amount of footage of the director as a child - but the compulsion to record (to see life through a lens) seems to have been passed down from one generation to the next because the moving images (in a range of formats) date all the way back to her grandparents. By extension, this sets up a further question - do you remember the event itself, or is your memory influenced (distorted?) by the recording of it?

    The director gets up close to the texture and form of the different film formats, an element that reminded me of José Luis Guerin's Tren de sombras (1997) - which is a different kind of reconstruction of the past, but the extended inclusion of the actual fabric of film seemed like a connection to Guerin's playfulness with form and representation. As Domínguez Ruvalcaba points out, a film cannot change (the image is photographically fixed onto celluloid or digitally stamped into pixels) but it changes because we change - each time we revisit the film (or still photograph) we see new details, and view events with the benefit of hindsight or the changing perspectives that come with ageing. Within that context, the degraded state of the films that La Danza del Hipocampo scrutinises - the scratches, colour desaturation, and lost definition - stands as a metonym for the mutability of memory and how it fades over time.

    The film also touches upon the idea of physical places as repositories for memory - both in the sense of troubled histories but also as a stimulant to recall the past - but ultimately this is a personal meditation on the accumulation of the scattered moments that define us as individuals. The process of making her film seems to have changed the director's perspective on the need to embed her memories in visual physical manifestations - she decides that some things deserve to be remembered (as a conscious decision) while we are living them rather than recorded to be revisited at one remove at a later date. However, as a record of its maker and her familial web of memories, La Danza del Hipocampo is a skilfully crafted and visually distinctive essay film - worth seeking out if you get the chance.