Patrick Mulcahy on the art of forgetting
Memory loss is usually understood to be an old person’s affliction, characterised by the onset of dementia. In Greek co-writer-director Christos Nikou’s highly accomplished debut feature film, Apples, it can afflict anyone at almost any age. A person could be standing at a football match and not know why they are there. Or they could crash a car and find themselves sitting on the pavement with no recollection of their own actions.
The protagonist of Apples, identified only as ‘14842’ (Aris Servetalis), is a bearded, handsome if thin, middle-aged man who very much wants to rid himself of his memories. His wife has recently died and when we first see him, he is metronomically banging his head against the wall in his apartment. Listening to the radio, he hears an announcement that more hospitals are accepting memory loss patients. After leaving flowers on his wife’s grave, he rides a bus to the end of the line, feigns memory loss and is checked in. He has divested himself of identity documents, so he is categorised by hospital staff as ‘unidentified’. No one comes to collect him, so he volunteers for the ‘New Identity’ programme. He is given an apartment to live in, an allowance and is issued with daily tasks: ride a bicycle, go to a party or dive ten metres into a swimming pool. He is only required to provide a set of Polaroid photographs as proof of endeavour. The purpose of these tasks is to learn how to live and also to reconnect with a sense of normality: how to live and behave amongst others.
14842’s deception makes for some wry comedy. He learns what to say to doctors from another patient and feigns an inability to recall items in little boxes. The only object he correctly identifies is a set of keys. Asked to match music to one of the pictures in a book, he associates ‘Jingle Bells’ with a wedding and ‘Swan Lake’ with a Mariachi player; he smiles as he makes his selection. He throws himself diligently into tasks (including comically crashing a child’s bike) and has fun dressing up. After a fancy-dress party, he feigns being a slow-moving NASA astronaut in the outfit given to him, slowly reaching for the tape player to receive his next instruction – the items used are all retrograde, not a mobile phone in sight. He munches on apples constantly. They are the only food he eats and the only habit he doesn’t break.
There is little dialogue, only of an awkward kind. We also see other patients at various stages of the programme, even a small queue who want to photograph themselves next to a poster outside a cinema.
The film tests 14842’s fake de-sensitisation as he meets a young woman (Sofia Georgovassili) who asks him to accompany her to complete ‘a difficult task’. She is simultaneously drawn to him and yet wants to keep him at a distance.
The film asks a series of questions: if we forget, do we feel guilty? Can a person without memory be manipulated to do anti-social things without fear? How is behaviour determined to be acceptable? At one point, 14842’s new companion stands on her head, counts to 154 and says she did so for four minutes. “154 is four minutes?” 14842 asks incredulously.
The tests have an element of cruelty, notably when 14842 is asked to form a bond with a stranger in a hospital. He feeds him soup. The experience has a galvanising effect on him, especially as he comes to realise that some people are perfectly happy with de-sensitisation and can find experiences that should unite people ‘boring’.
Forgetting is one response to accepting – or rather ignoring – a country’s troubled history. There is one oblique reference to recent Greek history when a doctor describes attending a demonstration. Her elderly colleague suggests that they could get their subjects to make Molotov cocktails. Nikou demonstrates that no matter how the past might be, it is better to remember it. Better too to have a sense of oneself in the flow of history.