Memoradic narrative
in The Shoebox

by Janet Marles

1. Donald N. McDonald aged 21 in WWI uniform 1915.

2. Heather and her older sisters the day they left Abdullah Park 10 August 1941.

3. Donald N. McDonald aged 26 October 1922.

4. Engagement notice, Donald Neil McDonald and Clara Bell, October 1922, newspaper unknown.

The Shoebox[1] [open endnotes in new window] is a biographical story that would commonly be made as a documentary film. However, I am exploring the potential for the online platform to reveal this narrative in a way that reflects its content.

•When a WWI veteran, who has been blinded in one eye on the battlefields of France, drives his car into a tram, he is killed. He leaves behind a wife and three daughters. It is 1937. Tragically, three years later the girls' mother also dies from a mysterious illness. The girls, Gwendoline 17, Marjory 14 and Heather 10 are put under the guardianship of their father's brother, Uncle Jock, a stock and station agent who lives in Kaniva, north-western Victoria, Australia.

•A silence descends over the family as the old ones feel it is best not to upset the girls by talking about their unfortunate situation. Uncle Jock insists the girls are not to be separated. Yet it is WWII and accommodation of any sort is very scarce. So they are boarded in a succession of houses hundreds of kilometres away in Geelong.

•For Heather, the youngest, it is a dozen homes in eleven years. With only scraps of information and two small photographs she ponders her origins and the cause of her mother's death for over sixty years until unexpectedly, at the age of seventy-two, she is handed a shoebox containing documents that fill in some of the pieces of her story.

The story of The Shoebox is one of memory; fragments of memory treasured from a past of loss and absence, as well as suppositions created in the place of no memories. Drawing on work by Michelle Citron (1999) and Annette Kuhn (1995) in investigating memory and image, this documentary unpacks the complex role of memory when it exists in a void. The biography positions memory as the most fragile of histories and asks: In a life of trauma and absence do childhood memories remain vivid into old age? What visible evidence do we need to make and maintain memories? Are documents of an objective, dry and fiscal nature, such as those found in the shoebox, more reliable than subjective memoirs or oral histories?

5. Memoradic narrative website “homepage” hyperlinks access The Shoebox interactive digital documentary.

The Shoebox’ protagonist Heather lives a life with gaps and missing information. What she does know of her own past and the lives of her parents is often only a portion of the circumstances. And, as the contents of the shoebox reveal, some of her knowledge, beliefs and memories are mistaken or only partially correct. Mirroring the fragmentation of Heather’s memory, the non-linear sections of the interactive biography enable the user/viewer to navigate to small pieces of content contained in each scene. These fragments of memory and history are styled as flashbacks using a variety of media forms that best reflect the process of memory—single freeze frame, sepia video and still images, and sequences of stills.

The contents of the shoebox become the primary sources for many of the fragments of media that build up the story. They are documents circa 1920 to 1950 including payment details and arrangements for the girls’ board and their parent’s last Will and Testaments. Some of the items in the shoebox are ordinary documents—used chequebooks, old account books, old letters, receipts—the type of items we discard daily. Yet with the passage of time combined with the context of a lost history, this everyday detritus is given the new status of sacred artefacts for Heather. As Margaret Gibson (2008 : 47-79) explains in her book on memory and mourning,

“For the bereaved objects can transpose into quasi-subjects, moving into that now vacant bereft place.”

This biography also gives indications of how Australian society has shifted since the 1930s and 1940s and how notions of the domestic and the feminine have changed over this time. What were the typical roles for rural woman and how did this impact on a family with three girls?  What choices were made for Heather as an orphaned girl of ten years of age?

With the discovery of the shoebox, Heather began a quest to uncover more of her family history and to meet relatives long lost to her. The trip to the Wimmera in 2002 when Heather received the shoebox was the beginning of these journeys that have taken her to the Victorian State archives, historical societies, cemeteries, the Australian War Memorial archives and the WWI battlefields of France and Belgium. I have accompanied Heather on many of these trips and have recorded her conversations and reactions as she uncovers the fragments of her history.

The Shoebox and interactive architecture

The interactive architecture of the documentary is structured for users so as to reveal fragments of content through their random choices and actions. As the user uncovers story clips (audio, still images, video segments) a thumbnail image representing the visited clip falls into its own unique place in a timeline at the bottom of the screen. After three such interactions the timeline fills-up with the remaining thumbnail images and the user can view the story as a linear documentary narrative with a “traditional” scripted beginning, middle and end.

This technique advances the work pioneered by Michelle Citron and Debra Beattie, both of whom present fragments of linear documentary narrative accessed from inside an interactive digital architecture. Beattie’s story is built from the user viewing separate QTVR®[2] panoramic scenes in The Wrong Crowd (2003). In contrast, Citron positions her media fragments in Mixed Greens (2004) along a timeline.

Both Citron and Beattie use interactivity, non-linear narrative and “traditional” narrative techniques to tell an autobiographical memory story. With The Shoebox I am adding to their body of work by creating a consolidated continuous linear narrative obtained through the random non-linear interactive choices of the user/viewer. This conflation of structural forms also mimics the way we recall personal events.

The means by which we remember has been described by neuroscientists as a process whereby fragments of memory are stored throughout the brain, depending on what kind of memory they are. When we recall something, our brain accesses these stored fragments and places them together into a recollected memory in a manner very similar to the way we dream (Engel 1999:5). These recalled memory fragments—musings, factual, experiential, episodic—are combined together to make up the story of our lives, the story of who we are.

With this structure I am exploring the conflation of non-linear and linear narratives within the digital documentary form. I am also investigating creating an interactive architecture that mirrors the content of this documentary memory story. Memoradic narrative is the process of revealing the story to the user/viewer in a way that mimics the nature of autobiographical memory recall. In a recollection process, fragments of memory are brought together to form a linear story for relating an event or experience.

6. Montage of still images from The Shoebox of the Wimmera region, Australia.

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