Archival material, at its basic level, is often the tired mark of authority in documentaries. It shows a filmmaker has done research and provides a necessary back story perhaps, and then we wait to get back to the real material -- the now.
This list highlights documentary films that have taken archival material and done something fresh with it - it's not just supporting a story, it is the story; or it's repurposed, remixed, reimagined and reinvigorated.
This archival material doesn't necessarily have to be in audio-visual form - some of the most interesting films have tackled the challenge of incorporating other types of records
10. Capturing the Friedmans The Friedman family was a seemingly normal Great Neck, NY family with three sons, until in 1987 father Arnold and son Jesse were arrested for child molestation, supposedly occurring during private computer classes held in their home. The Friedmans had a long habit of making home videos and continued this practice throughout the investigation and trial, recording a family buckling under the pressure of the allegations and ongoing events. Director Andrew Jarecki was given access to these recordings to incorporate into his documentary, presenting an intriguing mix of filmmaker-mediated and rawer scenes unfolding simultaneously.
9. Exit Through the Gift Shop Thierry Guetta filmed hundreds upon hundreds of hours of video over years, of anything and everything going on in his life and then also particularly graffiti artists going about their work. Never editing them, he placed the tapes in boxes, and they eventually emerged to form a core of this film. Whatever one thinks about the veracity of this film (I tend to think the very existence of a debate qualifies it as a documentary), Guetta is certainly an intriguing character and the boxes of videos play their own role in the film beyond just providing extra footage.
8. At the Death House Door
At the Death House Door is the story of Carroll Pickett, a now retired Texan pastor who was a death row chaplain for many years. Pickett made tape recordings of his thoughts after each execution, and now he listens to his younger self while the camera catches every facial expression and response. These tapes are woven through other stories including one examining the innocence of one of the prisoners, and the gradual collection of experiences builds to a fascinating repudiation of the death penalty without ever feeling like an activist film. Pickett's own stance on the death penalty is not revealed until late in the film, a masterful stroke.
7. Burma VJ Burma VJ uses material captured by video journalists in Burma during the period of the monks' uprising in 2007. Grainy and jumpy video footage is riveting as it presents an unfolding drama, narrated by some of the participants and also incorporating recreations of some of the communication at the time. The bravery of the journalists in a country where simply holding a camera is a major political act is astonishing, and the knitting together of their pieces makes a powerful work.
6. Bear 71 Bear 71, which I reviewed in a recent post [http://www.sbs.com.au/documentary/blogs/view/id/125677/t/A-slick-and-grizzly-webdoc], is an online interactive documentary that tells the story of a bear in the Canadian wilderness. The filmmakers drew on a store of existing footage from motion sensor cameras dotted around the forest, capturing animals in their native habitat that is being gradually encroached upon by humans. The viewer can roam the forest and follow the animals, viewing these vignettes bookended by other archival footage of the capture and tagging of bear 71.
5. The Green Wave The Iranian protests around the last election provided a fertile ground for media making. Phone cameras were out in force capturing the protests, while others took to Twitter and blogs to vent their frustrations and alert the world to what was happening. The Green Wave incorporates not only some of the footage captured at the time but also a number of the blog posts, using animation to illustrate the stories being told in graphic detail and allowing a deeper reflection on the events than that offered by grainy phone footage.
4. Senna The recent crowd pleaser, Senna, is that rare film entirely built from archival footage yet gripping the whole way through. Audio from present-day interviews is added to provide some analysis, but the story stays within its archival chronology. The sheer amount of footage available meant the director, Asif Kapadia, spent eight months sifting to find the bits he wanted, and he has managed to craft a tight and coherent narrative. I was also relieved and impressed to see the footage of Senna's death played in the film only once - all too often we find ourselves in a media world that needs to see gruesome events played over and over again.
3. Standard Operating Procedure Everybody saw the photographs of Iraqi prisoner abuse in Abu Ghraib, but any context was lost in the following maelstrom. In Standard Operating Procedure, Errol Morris sets out to find out the stories that go with the photos. Early on a graphic depicts thousands of photographs as if spread throughout a universe, perhaps hinting at the reach of this inexplicable behaviour. The perpetrators have their time in front of the camera to try and explain, but rather than building an understanding of their personal actions, the film creates a bigger picture of the futility of the entire system that produced them. At the end, it's still the photographs that have spoken the loudest.
2. Chicago 10 A fascinating courtroom trial is revisited in Chicago 10, a film covering the fallout from the 1968 anti-Vietnam war protests. While it does incorporate regular archival footage from the time, the standout approach is the film's bringing to life of the trial transcript using animation. Filmmaker Brett Morgen was conscious of needing to appeal to a contemporary audience, and for that reason didn't want to use talking heads of the now much older participants looking back. Through this approach, a dry historical record leaps up and becomes so much more relevant and riveting.
1. Shut Up Little Man! An Audio Misadventure Filmmaker Matthew Bate achieved an impressive feat by creating an engaging feature length documentary that centres on audio cassette recordings. In the 80s, friends Eddie and Mitch lived next door to two crotchety men, Peter and Raymond, who would drunkenly sling loud abuse at each other, and Eddie and Mitch recorded their hollering. The film traces the cultural phenomenon that grew out of these recordings, exploring ideas of privacy, copyright and art.
Julia Scott-Stevenson Julia is a writer and researcher of all things documentary, and even dabbles in making them herself from time to time. She lived in the Pacific Islands of Fiji and Samoa for a few years, where she made a documentary about the inaugural Miss Tokelau beauty pageant and a short documentary about climate change in Samoa, which screened at the inaugural Pacific Climate Change Film Festival. While in the Pacific she was subjected to limited internet connectivity, and was staggered to discover the possibilities in online documentary on her return at the end of 2008. She has since been making up for lost time by undertaking a PhD researching cross-platform documentary, and also working on a database documentary about volunteers. Julia is also on the programming team for Antenna International Documentary Film Festival.