Inez Hedges, World Cinema and Cultural Memory

(London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2015), 190 pp., $95.00.

It would appear that the distinction between memory and history is simple and straightforward. Memory is what we remember, history is what actually happened. Furthermore, memory and history are the domains of art and science, respectively; memory residing in stories, songs, dances, pictures and sculpture from time immemorial, history constructed by assembling, sifting and analysing factual data to arrive at a conclusion agreeable by consensus. This neat distinction, however, begins breaking down under the duress of political conflict. War produces the most traumatic and enduring memory while being the quintessential historic event. Memory and history interpenetrate in the fate of the soldier. Post-traumatic stress syndrome is so common that it has long been acknowledged even while being played down by governments – as a huge social cost, largely ignored in all the patriotic buildup war entails, yet acting like a time-bomb, often lurking in families and communities for decades before exploding into mayhem.

This example reveals more than the fuzziness of the line between memory and history, however. From their origins in mythology to their destination in present-day conflict, memory and history cannot be so neatly separated, nor can they be ranked in order of seriousness, as in a hierarchy making science important and art frivolous, or history the province of certified experts and art the province of anyone who claims to be an artist. In Greek myth, memory—Mnemosyne – is the mother of the Muses, among whom is Clio, Muse of history. This makes history the progeny of, and subordinate to, memory in a profound way: human societies share no greater commonalities than those regarding memory, age, generational progression and wisdom. Indeed, the English word, memory, is said to derive from the Old Norse, Mimir, a wisdom deity, whose decapitated head was preserved by Odin to provide sage counsel.

Our present-day circumstances are, on the other hand, the product of a process unleashed by the cataclysm of World War II. The wave of decolonisation which swept across Asia, Africa and Latin America in the 1950s and 1960s necessitated a complete rewriting of history. This emancipatory upheaval combined with efforts already underway in the imperial metropoles of France and Great Britain to revolutionise historiography as a discipline. Fernand Braudel and the Annales Group in France and Eric Hobsbawm and E.P. Thompson in Britain are notable examples of this enormous – and largely successful – effort to wrest historiography from the hands of prejudiced, pretentious servants of wealth and power and put it on a genuinely scientific footing, one, moreover, pioneered by Marx and Engels a century before. One concrete result is the many great histories that are now available rendering untenable the old defences of Imperialism, the White Man’s Burden and Europe’s “civilising mission”.

Most significant, however, was the worldwide Revolution of 1968. This event did more than anything to upend the arts and sciences, memory and history; its effects are most visible and enduring in the way oppressed nations, classes and groups have ever since challenged their depiction in history textbooks and popular culture. This is perhaps nowhere more obvious than in the United States where the struggles of Native Americans exposed forever the lies perpetrated by Hollywood and in school curricula about the “Winning of the West”. Cowboys and Indians, pioneers and savages, heroic sacrifice and barbaric cruelty all were reversed in the popular mind and academic historiography by, among others, the American Indian Movement, the Occupation of Alcatraz and subsequent battles at Wounded Knee and beyond. Of course, 1968 inevitably unleashed a counterrevolution, one that has continued without cease to this day. Reagan, Thatcher, and their cronies in the arts and sciences, began, following the ignominious US defeat in Vietnam, the Restoration of Imperial Command. They were largely – if temporarily – successful in doing so.

Which is where Inez Hedges’ latest book comes in. World Cinema and Cultural Memory is a treasure trove of evidence and analysis, providing a vital resource for anyone interested in changing the world. Its rich compendium of films from many parts of the world – some well known, others, undeservedly obscure – would alone make this book essential reading. While far from encyclopaedic – and making no attempt to be so – the book nonetheless provides a survey, or broad cross-section, of world cinema as it developed in the wake of World War II (the exceptions to this timeframe being Surrealist films and those works concerning the Spanish Civil War). Yet this is only part of a more ambitious project. A sweeping overview of decisive moments in the last century forms the basis for joining the battle over how they will be remembered, and what ends memory will serve. As Hedges states at the outset: “The uses of memory discussed in this book 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.”

To achieve this, Hedges deploys eight typologies of memory, each one associated with particular countries, bodies of cinematic or literary work, and those filmmakers, writers and political actors involved in carrying them out. Thus, Living Memory addresses the tortured path recollection and depiction took regarding the role of the Vichy government – and its citizens – in rounding up and deporting Jews between 1942 and 1944, most of whom ended up in Auschwitz and death. Amnesiac Memory addresses the contradictory attitudes of the Japanese people in response to the dropping of the Atomic Bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. This event – unquestionably among the most traumatic in human history – marks the 20th century in two ways that are genuinely novel. First, the role that cinema plays in recording as well as influencing social perception is new on a technological level alone, requiring methods and criteria designed to take this new medium into account. Second, the potential annihilation of the human species, previously unimaginable, determines our horizon, one forever conditioned by this threat created by humans, themselves.

Hedges’ exemplary films and filmmakers are both world-renowned and virtually unknown, making this far from merely another examination of the “culture industry”, co-optation or propagandistic effects of the mass media. It is instead a deeper analysis of the ways in which memory – in differing contexts and guises – is shaped and, most significantly, changes, amidst the onrush of events.

In both the French and Japanese cases, Hedges relies on more than her formidable expertise in film studies, bringing to the discussion the work that particular philosophers have done on the subjects at hand. In her introduction and in the case of the French concentration camp of Drancy, Hedges references the work of Michel Foucault, Stuart Hall and Paul Ricoeur. In the case of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, she brings forth the perspective of a book, The Nuclear Century: Voices of the Hibakusha of the World, published in 1997 by the Japan Peace Museum and the Japan Confederation of A- and H-bomb Sufferers. Hibakusha, Hedges tells us, is the Japanese word for “both those who survived the immediate effects of the bomb as well as those who were exposed to radiation afterwards.” She concludes, “To echo the sentiment in The Nuclear Century: We are all hibakusha today.”

These two typologies of memory are followed by:

– Convulsive Memory, dealing with the Spanish Civil War and Post-Franco Spain, especially the work of Fernando Arrabal, Luis Buñuel and Pedro Almodóvar with special reference to Surrealism and André Breton;

– Performative Memory, concerning the Nakba and the formation of Palestinian identity, featuring a number of filmmakers little known outside the Palestinian diaspora;

– Radical Memory, exploring Negritude, anti-colonial struggles in Africa, closely following the influence of Aimé Césaire, Frantz Fanon and Amilcar Cabral and the films and novels of Ousmane Sembene;

– Obstinate Memory, wherein Chris Marker’s and Patricio Guzmán’s films, Grin Without a Cat and The Battle of Chile, encounter the world revolution of 1968, the triumph and overthrow of the Allende government, and the subsequent rise and fall of Pinochet;

– Productive Memory, using Ernst Bloch’s concept of “forward dreaming” to interrogate Cuban revolutionary film, especially that of Tomás Gutiérrez Alea. The deployment of Bloch’s insights is especially significant, taking one small but vital step toward making this crucial Marxist philosopher current again; and, finally,

– Reclaimed Memory, delving into the German Democratic Republic, Worker Culture and shifting perspectives before, during and after the “Fall of the Wall” (die Wende). Particular attention is paid to the work of Peter Weiss, above all his magisterial novel The Aesthetics of Resistance, only the first volume of which is yet available in English.

The breadth and depth of the cinematic and literary works presented is extraordinary and a welcome antidote to both the arcane abstractions often trundled out by self-absorbed film theorists or the Siskel and Ebert-style, consumer-guide, caricature of the “film critic” common to most popular discussion. But more is at stake than films or filmmaking. The arguments being advanced are ultimately philosophical and neither limited to nor confined by art, science or what might be construed as the “proper” domains of memory and history. Indeed, what Hedges wants us to ponder are both aesthetics as a capacity to shape human beings (their relationships to each other and to their environment), along with the dialectics of transformation evident in artistic expression and praxis – as opposed to the static, monolithic structures and hierarchies purporting to be eternal or “natural” to which we are subjected in a dominator society. In this sense, Hedges is asking us to go deeper than the surface of either cinema or memory to learn how process, struggle, creativity and the dream of a better life flow in a Heraclitean river none can step into twice.

What is memory if not a battlefield? We struggle not only to recollect, reconstruct or reinterpret the past but to renew, reinvigorate and rededicate ourselves to a different, better future. Memory is therefore not merely a metaphorical terrain on which “real” conflict is re-enacted, but an actual combat zone where the stakes are life or death, slavery or emancipation, eternal damnation or earthly paradise. This explains why, to use Ernst Bloch’s great insight, fairy tales are the storehouse of human memory – imaginative and conservative at the same time. Fairy tales serve and preserve our dreams of a better life, justifying, furthermore, the sacrifices necessary to realise such dreams. It may be obvious that memory is not history, but the far more pertinent fact is that memory is not about the past, but about the future. What the Zapatistas intend by waging a “war against forgetting” is not a return to a yesterday of defeat and subjugation but an advance to a tomorrow of liberation from oppression and exploitation.

Reviewed by Mat Callahan

Bern, Switzerland

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