Top 10 Documentaries Using Archival Footage In The Aughts

December 1, 2009

Documentary is one of the most theoretically strict or austere of genres. I decided to lean more towards aestheticism than toward asceticism in developing my criteria. Simply put, it is the use of footage not originally shot or specifically created for the film as a basis of the film’s structure or narrative, or perhaps just as the source idea.

10. Ballets Russes
Had to include this because of the article in the Times Sunday Magazine a few weeks ago bemoaning the lack / difficulty of preserving dance. Yes, it’s a conceptually difficult prospect, but there are a number of efforts underway that the author neglects to mention, including the work going on at the Dance Heritage Coalition. Also, as Ballets Russes so beautifully shows, preservation is not always in the maintenance of the “object” itself, but also of its context and its experiential nature, which can be maintained through oral histories, written records, and audiovisual recordings.

9. We Jam Econo / End of the Century
Like watching home movies, not of a family but of a subculture that has just as tight of bonds. As we mature we leave behind those life & death emotions that we connected to music or other art forms and it’s fascinating to be reminded of those years. At the same time, it wasn’t just a connection of personal upheaval, but of cultural upheaval. As the subculture becomes mainstream, we forgot how original or dangerous it once seemed, and the repercussions it had in the wider culture. One of the powers of archival material is to help us reconnect or understand past states of mind. Finally, being able to see these rock and roll heroes behind the scenes or in personal moments helps remind us that they aren’t gods, but are just normal people like us who were just able to express what many people felt in a better way.

8. Harvard Beats Yale 29-29
I can’t really sit still to watch a sporting event, but I’ve always loved sports journalism, documentary footage (Hear Hear for NFL Films!) and the subsequent narratives from the event. A good story is a good story.

7. Bowling for Columbine
It was difficult to figure out where to place this one because of the conflict between my memory of seeing it when it came out (at a special screening in the student lounge basement at University of Virginia, because it wasn’t really playing anywhere else in Virginia) and my questioning of how well it has stood up over time, a judgment clouded by my assessment of Michael Moore’s subsequent movies. Though I have my doubts about the long term cultural impact of Moore’s mishmash style of talking heads, political theater, news footage, and humorous use of sponsored films & other archival footage, I have to remind myself that at the time it all felt fresh, fun, rebellious, and that it was actually doing serious work.

6. Capturing the Friedmans / Tarnation
We tend to have warm fuzzy associations with home movies, those gateways to the past that reconnect us with memories we have lost or that we want to share with others. But what happens when those memories are full of pain or questioning, or reflect something more sinister when viewed with some post facto knowledge? All families go through troubles, but they don’t always have the camera recording it all. There is something fascinating and disgusting about passively watching these problems play out, thus we talk about the exploitation of the subject in documentary by the filmmaker. But that seems to be negated by the fact of a family member documenting it all. What was the Friedman son thinking as he videotaped things, and why did he want someone else to edit and produce it for wider distribution? As Tolstoy says, “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”

5. The Five Obstructions
Perhaps a bit of stretch to include here, but this playful and entertaining documentary deserves to be on some list, especially since it reminds us that Lars von Trier is quite the trickster whose other work should be reviewed with that in mind. Von Trier’s challenge to his former film professor Jørgen Leth is in effect an argument in favor of the power and importance of archival material. Dig into the past. Let the memories retouch you and remind you, and use their inspiration to create anew. The results are something more than a mashup because of how they reengage Leth into the original creation and meaning of his images, developing meaning in the present by refinding it in the past.

4. Los Angeles Plays Itself
This has been sitting in my Saved Netflix queue for years with very little hope of it moving into Available. A delicious riff on the City Symphony sub-genre that incorporates too much copyrighted material to be commercially released any time soon. Perhaps an extreme example, but a beautifully made one that underscores the many problems low budget and documentary filmmakers have in repurposing material and releasing their films. Unless you feel like getting elected to Congress and rewriting American copyright law you should be scanning regional film festivals for the next time this screens.

3. The Case of the Grinning Cat
Uses Marker’s own stockpiled footage and archival materials from news and television as clues in an almost facetious mystery. “Almost” because, despite the slight smirk and guided Socratic method inherent in the film’s structure, the use of footage is truly engaging to the viewer. I found myself scanning the frame for glimpses of the grinning cat. When Marker “misses” one (i.e., tacitly lets the moment in some protest footage pass before going back to comment later) I felt myself light up and eagerly want to point it out to him. He leads the viewer to this Aha! moment, but a mark of great filmmaking is causing the audience to feel participatory in the story, not manipulated into reactions. Marker achieves this masterfully through his playful exploration of images.

2. Fog of War
Morris excels at exposing the human side of oddballs, geniuses, and monsters. Depending on your views, he’s potentially captured all three with Robert McNamara. I normally have problems with archival materials being used for aesthetic purposes that ahistoricize them, but Morris always does more with his imagery, whether archival or original. Something about being able to create a mood simultaneaous with the means for analysis through editing, repetition, and minimal narrative transcends my concerns through its combined expression of beauty and intelligence.

1. Grizzly Man
Another example like Friedmans of a filmmaker being hired to create a documentary from someone else’s materials with unanticipated and perhaps not happy results. The difference in this case is that there was plenty of back history to search through that should have given fair warning when engaging Werner Herzog. Good thing they did, however. Instead of some subpar basic cable hagiography they got themselves a masterpiece of the genre, and one that took Timothy Treadwell more seriously than it seemed to. Though almost confrontational, Herzog truly engages Treadwell’s theories, his life choices, and his filmmaking, trying to unpack it all and understand it in ways that a blandly positive documentary would not. Though Herzog may disagree with much of what he finds, his questioning, thoughtful approach is honest, personal filmmaking at its finest, and the resulting documentary approaches closer to truth than to history.

— Joshua Ranger