A stop-motion tour of memory in “Souvenir”

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To make “Souvenir”, a short film on the immensity of memory, directors Paloma Canonica and Cristina Vilches spent two years working in a particularly confined space. In a semi-abandoned market in Zaragoza, Spain, the duo built sets and shot scenes that take viewers to the bottom of the sea and to the surface of the moon. The film, as its name suggests, contemplates the passage of time and the physical artifacts that preserve it. “It was an inspiring place for us,” Canonica recently told me via Zoom, referring to the largely empty market. “We found letters; we found old boxes. It was full of things people had left behind.

In the film, a young girl and her father embark on a series of adventures, some likely taking place only in their imaginations. Whether the couple is floating in a hot air balloon or sailing on a gently rolling sea, the scenes are linked by two everyday constants: the daughter’s blue-rimmed glasses and her father’s wooden pipe. At just under fourteen minutes, “Remembrance” contains no dialogue, but it does express volumes, expressing the depth of relationship and the enduring strength of shared memories. The glasses and the pipe return for the coda, in which the daughter has become a grown woman and the father an old man.

Canonica, thirty-two, and Vilches, thirty, met at graduate school, where each earned a master’s degree in illustrated books and audiovisual animation. “Memory,” made with stop-motion animation, evokes the look and feel of a children’s book — the type that resonates just as strongly with adult readers. The rolling ocean waves and the flame that fuels the hot air balloon capture complex movements and emotions. With each new adventure, the characters’ sense of wonder and connection passes on to the viewer.

Like their bespectacled protagonist, Canonica and Vilches owe their journey in part to a relative. Vilches’ father used to sell chickens in the market where they shot the film, which at the time of filming had only one store, a butcher. After arranging to rent the halls, the couple and their collaborator Alicia Bayona built their own temporary studio. Using a remarkable array of techniques, they designed nearly every visual aspect of the film, from the characters’ hand-sewn outfits to luminescent deep-sea fish, and also designed some of the special sound effects. (A making-of video attests to their craftsmanship and creative ingenuity.) Their turmoil extended beyond filming, which wrapped shortly before the pandemic hit: when they weren’t touring, Vilches worked at a daycare, and Canonica earned an income from illustration. Crowdfunding, accompanied by a possible financial prize for young creators, enabled them to carry out the project.

At the end of the film, only the now familiar objects remain, poignantly arranged in a spare wooden box. We don’t see the people they belonged to, but they, and the film itself, will remain etched in viewers’ memories.

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