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. 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.

Like Cultural Studies, though unlike History, the new sub-discipline is characterized by a uniform ideological outlook of progressive liberal cast; contrarians and conservatives need not apply. Hedges explains in World Cinema and Cultural Memory that, like Huyssen, she wants to focus on ‘productive’ forms of memory, intimately linked, as he has put it, to ‘processes of democratization and struggles for human rights’. The uses she discusses are ‘oppositional ones that have arisen out of struggles—struggles against forgetting, against forces that work to suppress memory, against hegemonic claims that counter the resurgent acts of memory with arguments that the world has to be the way it is.’ Cinema, she argues, has played a crucial role in fostering cultural memory since 1945 due to the power of the medium; even the ‘fictive memories’ that films create can have a social impact, if they address ‘unresolved historical traumas, recall buried utopian aspirations or help to define identities in the process of formation.’

Hedges develops a typology of memory functions, drawing not just on cinema but many other cultural media: novels, poetry, sculpture or memorials. ‘Living memory’ focuses on the French experience of the Judeocide—a standard move in Memory Studies—and more particularly on works involving the concentration camp in Drancy, the northeastern Paris suburb: Marcel Bluwal’s Le Plus beau pays du monde (1996), a feature film set under the Occupation which has a scene set in the camp; Cécile Clairval’s documentary, Drancy, dernière étape avant l’abîme (2002); Arnaud des Pallières’s ‘philosophical meditation’, Drancy avenir (1996); Noël Calef’s novel, Drancy 1941 (1943); and Shelomo Selinger’s brutalist granite memorial erected at Drancy, now a run-down housing estate, in 1976—and which, Hedges admits, ‘needs a lot of explaining to be appreciated by visitors’.