Docs to watch: From the Archives
With our New Reveries: The Power of Archive Now filmmaking competition well under way, we're thinking about some of the most striking, enjoyable and effective uses of archive material in documentaries.
In his 'How to Make an Archive Doc' workshop (which you can watch online here), Dr Shane O'Sullivan talks about different modes of archive documentary, which might be a completely 'found footage' film, or could use archive material more as a starting point and a way of setting an agenda for the film.
And the archive material itself? That could be footage in the public domain, from the news, from other films, or personal archive from home movies to family photos and other ephemera.
Celebrating some wonderful films that use varied sources of archive material in different creative ways, here's our list of archive docs to watch online.
THE STUART HALL PROJECT John Akomfrah / 2013 / 99 mins
A brilliant and profoundly expressive use of TV archive, The Stuart Hall Project uses material from cultural theorist Stuart Hall's catalogue of TV work along with film and photos from his personal archive to tell the story of his life and work.
Born in Jamaica, Hall emigrated to the UK in 1951 to take up a place at Oxford University. He became an influential figure in the new left, and is credited as one of the founders of contemporary cultural studies.
John Akomfrah soundtracks his exploration of Hall's 50 years of insight with the music of his favourite musician, Miles Davis. The resulting tessellation of image and sound is a powerful tract on identity, memory and the second half of the 20th Century through the eyes of one of its most important cultural theorists.
Artist and filmmaker John Akomfrah was a founding member of the Black Audio Film Collective in 1982 and has made numerous cinema/TV films and gallery installations working with archive material in the decades since.
This 'Tate Shots' film is a fascinating insight into Akomfrah's work and inspiration. In it he discusses the creation of new meaning through the bringing together of discrete elements or fragments:
"everyone who helped to popularise the philosophy of montage was interested in one thing - the third meaning. Somehow when... two opposites collide in this dialectical way, some sort of synthesis is engineered or brought about and, in that, a new form, a new meaning, or a new way emerges."
THE ATOM: A LOVE AFFAIR Vicki Lesley / 2020 / 89 mins
The Atom: A Love Affair tells the dramatic story of nuclear power, and our changing relationship with it, chronologically, from the post-war period to the present day, focusing in particular on events in the US, UK, France & Germany.
These events are mapped onto the structure of a real-world love affair. A major aspect of storytelling, fundamental to the tone and visual style of the film, is the archive footage throughout, including PR material produced by the nuclear industry through the years, as well as activist films, news footage and the vintage industrial and public information clips.
SENNA Asif Kapadia / 2010 / 105 mins
This epic biography of Formula One driver Ayrton Senna was director Asif Kapadia's first feature length doc after starting his career as a fiction director.
With Senna, Kapadia seemed to break the mould for archive docs, creating a thrilling, cinematic, tour-de-force which, crucially, used only archive material in the visual track, keeping the present day interviews, through which he tells the story of Senna's short life and dazzling driving career, as audio only.
Like the subjects of Kapadia's subsequent two archive documentaries - Amy Winehouse and Diego Maradona - Ayrton Senna lived a life in the limelight with reams of footage tracking his career in the 80s and early 90s. Formula One opened up its massive archive to Kapadia and his team, allowing him to tell an entirely historical tale with the immediacy and pace of a thriller.
FROM THE SEA TO THE LAND BEYOND Penny Woolcock / 2012 / 75 mins
Made from over 100 years of footage from the BFI National Film Archive, director Penny Woolcock's archive-only film is a lyrical meditation on Britain's unique coastline and the role it plays in our lives.
With an original soundtrack specially created by Brighton-based band British Sea Power, it offers moving testimony to our relationship to the coast - during wartime, on our holidays and as a hive of activity during the industrial age.
Watch From the Sea to the Land Beyond on Amazon Prime.
The film was originally commissioned by Sheffield Doc/Fest and had its world premiere at the 2012 festival. Doc/Fest continued to champion archive filmmaking in subsequent years, with BBC Storyville and BBC North co-productions mining the wealth of material in the BFI National Archive to produce The Big Melt (2013) by Jarvis Cocker and filmmaker Martin Wallace (watch on the BFI Player) and Kim Longinotto's Love is All (2014), soundtracked by Richard Hawley (watch on Google Play or YouTube).
BITTER LAKE Adam Curtis / 2015 / 140 mins
"Increasingly, we live in a world where nothing makes any sense. Events come and go like waves of a fever, leaving us confused and uncertain. Those in power tell stories to help us make sense of the complexity of reality, but those stories are increasingly unconvincing, and hollow." (Bitter Lake)
Distinctive, provocative and piercing, Adam Curtis has been editing archive footage at the BBC to offer counter narratives to popular politics and consumerism for two decades.
Mining the extensive rushes of everything the BBC had ever shot in Afghanistan, Bitter Lake re-tells the story of the country's tangled history, unpicking the simplified narrative of good vs. evil spun by Western governments.
Whether you find Curtis's argument convincing, or as some critics claimed, another form of the kind of mythmaking it rails against, there is revelation a-plenty along with the sheer force of the extraordinary footage that he has brought together for this one-of-a-kind essay film.
TRUMP: AN AMERICAN DREAM Series Director Barnaby Peel / 2018 / 4 episodes
Made by London-based production company 72 Films, this Channel 4 and Netflix co-production uses abundant little-seen archive to tell the compelling story of Donald Trump.
Spread over four episodes, it chronicles Trump’s rise in real estate, move into casinos, his near financial ruin and finally his reality TV stardom and launch of his political campaign.
Watch Trump: An American Dream on Netflix.
APOLLO 11 Todd Douglas Miller / 2019 / 93 mins
Todd Douglas Miller's awe-inspiring Apollo 11 shows just how giant a leap for humankind the journey to the moon was in 1969.
In a superhuman feat of editing, the film cuts over 11,000 hours of recordings into a hair-raising 93 minutes that puts you in the front seat of America's first mission to the moon.
Filled with unseen clips and unheard voice recordings, it brings the voyage back to life, in breathtaking quality.
THE LIFE AND TIMES OF ROSIE THE RIVETER Connie Field / 1980 / 65 mins
When the US joined the Second World War and a generation of men went off to fight, a host of jobs that were previously off limits to women suddenly opened up. Thousands of posters and billboards appeared calling on women to “Do the Job He Left Behind” and Rosie the Riveter was born - the symbol of working women during WWII.
Bringing together the oral history of five women - each one a Rosie the Riveter themselves - Connie Field contrasts their testimony with original archive material from news reels, recruitment films, stills, posters, ads and music from the period.
Watch The Life and Times of Rosie the Riveter on Vimeo on Demand.
KHRUSHCHEV DOES AMERICA Tim Toidze / 2013 / 59 mins
This little known story could have ended the Cold War long before Gorbachev.
In the autumn of 1959 with communist paranoia at its peak, the US Government made the extraordinary decision to invite the Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev, America’s arch-enemy, for an unprecedented, 'no-holds-barred' two week tour of the United States.
Khrushchev’s personal voice recordings from the trip are used to offer a remarkable insight into his experiences in America, mixed with television footage, home movies (by Khrushchev’s son Sergei), photos and political propaganda – both Soviet and American.
His often humorous commentary makes for a surreal and fantastically entertaining documentary about this now forgotten historical event.
Watch Khrushchev Does America on YouTube.
THE ROAD MOVIE Dmitrii Kalashnikov / 2016 / 67 mins
Winning the award for the most unexpected source of found footage, The Road Movie is an anarchic and exhilarating journey through Russia edited entirely from dash-cam footage uploaded to YouTube.
Filmmaker Dmitrii Kalashnikov offers a portrait of a country full of extremes through candid footage of car accidents of every variety, blazing fires, impossibly icy conditions, terrifying standoffs, and let’s not forget the bear or the meteor.
Hilarious, terrifying and bewildering, all at the same time, it’s a wild ride that you won’t soon forget.