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Docs To Watch: Archival Treasure Troves

Friday 22 January, 2021

In Wintopia, which we will be screening on the 28th, Director Mira Burt-Wintonick pours through 300 tapes left behind by her father Peter after his death. These tapes, in which he documents his quest for “Utopia”, form the backbone of this lyrical film, and provide Mira with a new insight into her father. 

For documentary makers, such treasure troves of material, in every type of medium from video cassettes to stills to audio recordings to classified documents, are often the foundation for films, which otherwise could not have been made. Two new films are good examples: MLK/FBI extensively uses newly declassified documents obtained through the Freedom of Information Act, while Belushi employs forgotten audio tapes recorded in the wake of the legendary comedian’s untimely passing. 

With the proliferation of media of every kind in the information age, this trend will continue to grow as filmmakers make creative use of discovered material. Here are some standout examples of films which are created around key archive:

MLK/FBI / SAM Pollard  / 2020  / 104 mins

MLK/FBI is the first film to uncover the extent of the FBI's surveillance and harassment of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. 

Based on newly discovered and declassified files, using a trove of documents obtained through the Freedom of Information Act and unsealed by the National Archives, as well as revelatory restored footage, this fascinating film explores the government's history of targeting Black activists, and the contested meaning behind some of our most cherished ideals.

You can watch MLK/FBI on Dogwoof On Demand @Bertha DocHouse here

Ben: Diary of a Heroin Addict / Olly Lambert / 2006/ 48 mins

In 2006, 34 old Ben Rogers died after 18 years of heroin abuse. He left behind 30 hours of unflinching video footage that he had filmed over the last two years of his life. His mother granted Olly Lambert permission to re-work his footage.

You can watch the film Vimeo and YouTube

Finding Vivian Maier / John Maloof, Charlie Siskel / 2014 / 84 mins

This Academy Award-nominated documentary explores the hidden life of nanny Vivian Maier, who left behind a treasure trove of 100,000 still photographs, which lay undiscovered for decades.

Available on Mubi and Amazon Prime

Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck / Brett Morgan / 2015 / 132 Mins

Brett Morgan was granted permission by Kurt Cobain’s family to delve into his personal possessions, kept in a storage facility. The resulting film, Montage of Heck, is a memorable look inside the creative mind of the enigmatic Nirvana frontman, brought to life through his personal diaries, music, art, and 200 hours of unreleased audio.

Available to rent on Amazon Prime and YouTube.

Another archive-rich film of Morgan’s uses discovered National Geographic footage to profile Jane Goodall. 

John McEnroe: In the Realm of Perfection / Julien Faraut / 2019 / 94 mins

Julien Faraut uses instructional tennis videos shot in the 1960s, and 16mm footage of an infamous 1984 match, all shot by by filmmaker Gil de Kermadec.

Playful and enigmatic, the film probes layers of reality and intangible forces at work, and is an entertaining portrait of McEnroe’s technique and temper at the peak of his game.

You can watch it on Amazon Prime and YouTube

Recorder: The Marion Stokes Project / Matt Wolf  / 2019  / 87 mins

A DocHouse favourite, Recorder: The Marion Stokes Project crackles with footage from the 70,000 VHS tapes recovered after her death.

For thirty years, Marion Stokes secretly video-taped everything on TV, twenty-four hours a day. 

Matt Wolf's curious and compelling profile opens up her archive, showing how the media shapes and reflects our lives, and how fine the line is between eccentric and visionary.

You can watch the film on Amazon Prime.