When Italian director Paolo Pisanelli decided to organise an exhibition of the photographic works of legendary filmmaker Cecilia Mangini, little did he know that he would help unearth a forgotten treasure trove of photos she had taken in Vietnam in 1965, during the height of the war against the US.
It would be easy to say that Two Forgotten Boxes is a film as much about memory loss as about the Vietnam that she captures on camera. Yes, Mangini is 94 and there are times when she has difficulty recalling things and this concerns her. But in the main, she is as sharp as a pin, and highly astute, and is as knowledgeable about contemporary politics as she was in her firebrand years during the 1960s.
The real reason the cache of astounding photos, contact prints and negatives was set aside was that they were never subsequently needed. They were intended as research for an Uni Telefilm documentary, to be made with her husband Lino del Fra, but which was subsequently dropped. Mangini therefore felt the archive to be redundant and unusable, despite the extreme care with which she had catalogued its contents.
But Pisanelli was hooked. “After I looked through these boxes I understood that I had to do something… I told Cecilia we had to work together on this…on giving meaning to her archive,” he explains.
In the film every new envelope that Mangini opens up triggers another set of memories. “Photos recover time, space, feelings, recover everything,” she narrates in the film, quoting from production notes that she kept at the time. Vietnam was a “land of wonders” for a photographer.
In the photographs the streets of Hanoi buzz with life and vitality, couples embrace and people going about their business in droves. Everywhere there are kids who stare at the camera, not because they want to have their pictures taken but because they are intrigued by the contraption that Mangini is continually holding to her face. Mangini herself concedes that “giving every child a camera would be a Socialist action.”
The archive is also infused with political fervour and depicts “a people who never surrendered, never yielded. They defeated the French at Dien Bien Phu. They knew what resistance meant and face hardship with serenity,” Mangini tells us.
This is a political viewpoint that Pisanelli is happy to embrace and to apply to people undergoing conflict even in the 21st Century. “The Vietnamese resisted against the extreme actions of all these countries [he also cites the US and China], and it is an example that we have to consider during a period when there are a lot of [similar] wars. Sometimes individual people don’t have the strength to create a rebellion, so focussing on what happened in Vietnam and especially the Vietnamese people is a way to create comparisons and to give strength to people.”
The director goes on to address the theme of memory, all the time underlining the vibrant role that Mangini played in the film’s creation, realisation and edit.
“It’s not just the war itself but the war within us and, in particular, her war which is related through her history and her memory,” he stresses. “Memories in general are painful. Sometimes we play with them, like we remember after a while things that are not actually true. It’s not easy every time to remember things the way they really happened, so sometimes we change the memory of the past.”
Mangini herself speaks lyrically about her fading memory, as she works in her spacious book-lined apartment where a lot of the film is located. Memory loss is “the sedimentation within who knows which cells in my brain,” she says, and each recollection for her is “written in water.”