But here I must question myself as to what I am at that moment––at the moment, so immediately and so separate, which is that in which I began to dream under the effect of the knocking which is, to all appearances, what woke me.

–Lacan, Seminar XI, p. 56.

In Bogotá and 300 km away in Pijao, as I was making Memoria, the morning ‘bang’ disappeared. With it the precious, murky, drifting realm was gone. For better or for worse, I could sleep for seven hours a night. This was another answer.

–Apichatpong Weerasethakul, Memoria (Berlin: Fireflies Press, 2021).

In 2017, Apichatpong Weerasethakul was honored at a film festival in Colombia. Speaking about the experience retrospectively, in 2021, the filmmaker said watching the tribute was like a “funeral.”[1] Continuing his travels in the country after the festival, he began to hear a sound upon waking, like a bang or, what he now names “the idea of sound.”

This body-event led him to visit hospitals in the region. Weerasethakul’s parents were both doctors – he “loves hospitals.” Here, amidst listening to the “stories, trauma, and hope,” the material of his new film, Memoria (2021), written with Tilda Swinton, began to take shape. For the filmmaker, the tribute at the film festival prompted the “end of a chapter,” opening a “symbolic new chapter.”

Memoria, set in Bogotá and Pijao, is Weerasethakul’s first feature-length film shot outside of Thailand. Swinton and Weerasethakul chose a third location where they were both strangers to knot their mutually “dislocating” experiences of grief, insomnia, and the bang, without ignoring Colombia’s geopolitical specificity (reverberations of guerilla warfare, the construction of la linea.) Swinton plays an expat orchid botanist, Jessica, whom she says is more of a “predicament” than a character. Weerasethakul likens Jessica to the process of cinema itself: she is collecting sound and image, absorbing.

Jessica, like Weerasethakul, experiences a loud sound upon waking. The film follows her as she seeks knowledge about this sound amidst her different encounters (her sister in the hospital, a new anthropologist friend, Bogotá dérives). She first recreates the bang in a studio with an engineer and then finally visits a doctor in Pijao, who tells her everyone in the town hallucinates. Indeed, the persistent real of the sound resists scientific capture. Jessica’s last encounter with the fisherman Hernan – who “shows her how to stop,” a man who remembers everything without repression – emphasizes the sound’s poetic absurdity, outside-meaning and at the threshold of death.

The film itself is delicately constructed around a void of not-knowing. Unpredictable weather patterns and light ratios imprint long takes of 35 mm film, 14 minutes per reel. Filming in another country other than Thailand, Weerasethakul had to release a sense of control over the props and set. The filmmaker is known for his attention to sound and extensive sound archive, which he ties to his own memory. In Memoria, audio samples from Colombia and Thailand are integrated. The mysterious bang was only created afterwards in a Thai studio, left unknown to the actors during filming. Importantly, the sound is fictional, embellished, rather than a recreation of the one Weerasethakul experienced.

Unlike the funereal tribute, the not-all of Memoria exists in different “satellites,” past the image and materiality of film. Fireflies Press has published a book of Weerasethakul’s notes, showing “another film in my head,” that was then “reduced” for the script of Memoria. Moreover, the filmmaker describes his recent exhibition in Lyon as both a “memory of Memoria” and as the footage at the end of the film “that’s not there.” In this present-absent satellite ending, Weerasethakul films Swinton sleeping. Perhaps taken together, Memoria and its satellites are a dream, in the sense of being a partial awakening for the filmmaker.[2] The bang Weerasethakul first heard, if not any more understood through meaning, finds a sinthomatic place through the process of filming. He discovered a medical name, “exploding head syndrome”, only after the final edits.

[1] See “Apichatpong Weerasethakul and Tilda Swinton on Memoria: NYFF59,” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2C07slRRSVw, Film at Lincoln Center.

[2] Éric Laurent, “The Réveil (Awakening) from the Rêve (Dream) or th’Esp of a Rev,” XII Congress of the World Association of Psychoanalysis.