The use of archival footage in documentary filmmaking

British documentary filmmaker Adam Low at yesterday afternoon’s workshop

So yesterday afternoon at the Hotel Normandie, after the team-led morning workshop on the theory and practice of documentary filmmaking, British documentary filmmaker and trinidad+tobago film festival regular Adam Low, who was part of the morning session, did a solo stint on the use and misuse of archive film footage in documentaries.

The subject might seem a somewhat obscure one, and I myself admit to being slightly taken aback when I first learned it was one of the workshop topics at this year’s festival. But just give it a moment’s thought and you’ll realise that for many, if not most documentary filmmakers, archive material is manna, and knowing how to effectively manipulate it is key to mastering the art of the documentary. Adam’s presentation was thorough and incisive–not to mention extremely enjoyable–and I found myself taking such copious notes that I’ve decided to make this post much more detailed than usual.

After quickly running through the different types of archival footage there are, Adam began to discuss the different ways the material can be used to achieve various ends. He did so by playing clips from a number of films by well-known documentary filmmakers, and examining how archive footage was used in each of them. He began with one of the giants of the documentary, Errol Morris, and clips from his 2004 Academy Award-winning film The Fog of War, about Robert McNamara, who was the US Secretary of Defense during the War in Vietnam.

The Fog of War is essentially a filmed interview with McNamara, interspersed with archive material. The material is mostly quite mundane propaganda military footage, but, the way Morris edits it together, and with the addition of music, as well as bits of taped conversations between McNamara and then US-president Lyndon Johnson, the footage is made ironic, and what McNamara says is undermined and ironicised as well. “It’s extremely chilling in the way that the archive material is used,” said Adam. “It’s used in this poetic way–it becomes a work of art.” He added, “Archive is only of any real consequence if you do something creative with it.”

The next film Adam showed clips from was First Contact, a 1983 Australian documentary about the native people of the interior of Papua New Guinea in the 1930s encountering outsiders for the first time. The extraordinary archive footage in this film is actually what is known as “found” footage–specifically, film that a prospector shot on a camera he took with him to PNG. Here Adam talked about the sensitivity needed in using such personal footage; one must remember, he said, that the people in this footage aren’t actors. More than this, such footage can be problematic, and can come across as exotic, even racist. Yet the primal power of the footage cannot be denied. “Archive footage has the incredible capacity to take you back in time, and bring into focus distant events,” Adam declared.

After First Contact was the 2008 documentary The Agony and the Ecstasy of Phil Spector, directed by Vikram Jayanti, who, like Adam, makes documentaries for the BBC Two Arena series. Like The Fog of War, Phil Spector is essentially an interview with its subject, intercut with archive footage. Some of the footage is from performances of songs that Spector, the great music wizard who pioneered the “wall of sound” in the 1950s and 60s, wrote and produced. But the bulk of the archive is from Spector’s 2007 trial for the murder of his companion Lana Clarkson.

Although Jayanti was banned from the courtroom, he had (free) access to the filmed footage of the trial, and he uses it to astonishing effect in his film, which is, on the surface, about Spector’s life in music, and not about his tribulations at all. “You give a meaning to the archival footage which you didn’t have before,” said Adam, noting the importance here of proper editing. He then played two clips showing scenes from the trial: one was of Spector’s past girlfriends testifying to his violent nature, overlaid by the Crystals’ infamous “He Hit Me (It Felt Like A Kiss)”, the other showing Spector’s lawyer arguing that the evidence implicating his client was false, soundtracked by the Beatles’ “Let It Be” (Spector famously produced the Fab Four’s last album).

“We should have a ‘Do not try this at home’ label stuck to this film,” joked Adam, about the film he next showed a clip from, titled, coincidentally, It Felt Like A Kiss, by the king of archive material, the British documentary filmmaker Adam Curtis. This is a film composed entirely of archive material, and its theme is how power works in our modern world. It features footage of, among others, Eldridge Cleaver, Doris Day, Philip K Dick, Enos (a chimpanzee sent into space), Rock Hudson, Saddam Hussein, Richard Nixon, Lee Harvey Oswald, Mobutu Sese Seko, and Tina Turner. All the footage is cut together in a spellbinding way, with, again, the potent use of music, and the bold use of captions. Adam admitted to showing the clip as an extreme example of the use of archive material; Curtis is a unique filmmaker, and no one else does what he does.

Finally, Adam rounded out his presentation with clips from a personal project–not one of his own documentaries, but a film he was asked to do some archive research on. He explained how, with very little budget and only two weeks to work in, he was able (with the assistance of professional archive researchers in the UK) to access and put together archive material to make a film clip to the client’s satisfaction. He noted that much archive material is available free at such places as, and that the BBC is in the process of putting all of its archives online for public access (though not for free).

“I use archive in my films all the time, and it’s very enjoyable,” said Adam as he wrapped up. As he said this, however, I couldn’t help but think that for someone like Adam Low who is British and works a lot with the BBC and has access to much great archive material, it’s quite easy to make such a statement. Trinidad and Tobago filmmakers (as well as writers) know how little proper archive material, relatively speaking, is available here, and how difficult such material can be to access where it does exist. But as I was thinking this, Adam made one final point, in answer to a question from the audience.

“Archive is so powerful that if you use it properly, you can make it appear that there’s more than there is.”

Making the most of what you have–good advice not just for documentary filmmakers, but filmmakers in general.

Catherine Emmanuel, TTFF workshop coordinator, assists Adam Low in his presentation

The audience takes in Adam’s presentation

Date: Sun 27 Sep, 2009
Category: ttff news and features

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