Describing the early stages of amnesia in the opening to My Last Breath, Luis Buñuel warned his readers that what would follow was not a tight, factual recounting of his life but something more chaotic, digressive and, yes, false.footnote1 He had discovered with age that his memories were not always accurate, and found himself telling stories about things that never happened, like the wedding of his friend Paul Nizan at the church of St Germain des Près, with Sartre as the best man. Yet ‘our memory is our coherence’:

Imagine (as I often have) a scene in a film where a man tries to tell a friend a story but forgets one word out of four, a simple word like ‘car’ or ‘street’ or ‘policeman’. He stammers, hesitates, waves his hand in the air, gropes for synonyms. Finally his friend gets so annoyed that he slaps him and walks away. Sometimes, too, resorting to humour to ward off panic, I tell the story about the man who goes to see a psychiatrist, complaining of lapses in memory. The psychiatrist asks him a couple of routine questions and then says: ‘So? These lapses?’ ‘What lapses?’ the man replies.

Our sense of self is tied to the past we remember, to everyone and everything we have known. Dealing with what Buñuel describes offers potentially rich material for the screen: in cinematic language, distortion, lapses and hesitations might be evoked through a camera’s unreliable point of view, jumps in action or fade to black; Godard’s collage work with different forms of film and video to suggest how the screen might convey flashes of clarity or recollection. Cinema’s relation to memory extends beyond the representation of subjective recall. Formally, film mimics memory: bringing up before our eyes scenes that happened—that were enacted before the camera—some time ago. Like all storytelling, cinematic narrative is deeply linked to the work of memory, as the shared etymology with ‘history’ suggests. For the Constructivist film-makers, who rejected the conservative poison of ‘theatrical’ narrative, chronicity was central; Vertov’s ‘We: Variant of a Manifesto’ invited its audience ‘to flee—out into the open, into four-dimensions (three + time)’. In the hands of the Surrealists—Buñuel himself, but also, in Peter Wollen’s telling, the ethno-cinematographer Jean Rouch—cinema is the art form of the unconscious: unwanted, but explosive, memory.

In World Cinema and Cultural Memory, her fourth book, Inez Hedges aims to investigate the stratagems of memory in a series of political films—to analyse the ways in which cultural works deal with real events in the historical past and present. Her framework is Memory Studies, an increasingly institutionalized sub-discipline lying somewhere between History and Cultural Studies. Its intellectual origins can be traced to the efforts of liberal Cold War historians in France—François Furet but, above all, Pierre Nora—to rid their country’s intellectual life of stubbornly persistent concepts from the Great Revolution, in the name of ‘anti-totalitarianism’. Just as Furet’s Penser la Révolution française (1978) explained the late eighteenth-century upheavals in terms of discourse dynamics rather than social causes, so Nora’s monumental Les Lieux de mémoire (1984–92) aimed to replace ‘a history that divides us’ with ‘a culture that unites us’, wherein French identity would be embodied in fondly recalled totems and fragments. This coalesced easily with Anglophone ‘history from below’, with its emphasis on cultural artefacts and popular memory. In the nineties, Andreas Huyssen and his colleagues adapted and extended the project to a reunited Germany. At the same time, the burgeoning fields of human rights and post-conflict studies began to deploy ‘memory’ as a means to individualize and psychologize—and thus to depoliticize—social and ethnic struggles from South Africa to the Balkans and Northern Ireland.

In the past ten years Memory Studies has established itself in the academy—a spate of journals and student-oriented handbooks date from around 2007—and has flowered luxuriantly, amid the general ruin of the Humanities. In seeking an intellectual grounding, it could not totally ignore the 1920s work of the Durkheimian sociologist Maurice Halbwachs. In Les Cadres sociaux de la mémoire, first published in 1925, Halbwachs elaborated the concept of a socially structured ‘collective memory’ that reworked the image of the past in accord with the predominant views of the present. Explanatory social frameworks were precisely what the relativizing approach of Memory Studies sought to avoid, however, so ‘collective’ was generally replaced by ‘cultural’ in its endeavours. More recently, ‘transcultural’ memory has become a buzzword, with a focus on culturalizing the processes of migration.