The documentary master explores the stakes of the archive alongside the IDFA 2019 focus program Re-releasing History.
What is it that attracts us so much to images from the past? How come we feel so seduced by the archive? So much has been written about the so-called “archive fever” that has, since the early days of cinema, infected filmmakers and viewers. This “fever” refers both to the practice of searching and finding film images from previous times, and the subsequent process of reassembling these images into new film narratives. In the avant-garde movements of last century—from Surrealism to Post-modernism—it was common practice among artists to use found objects and transform them into artworks: the status and function change when the object is taken out of its original context. Artists working with film have long been familiar with this approach, and in recent decades an increasing number of filmmakers have also been working in this direction. Since the invention of the first movie camera, cinema and all its descendants have produced an enormous array of images in the attempt of representing reality, narrating our emotions and creating evidence of our history, both public and private. We, as viewers and filmmakers, are facing this uncanny mirror of wonders on a daily basis, and a series of questions arise: how do images from the past define our personal and collective memories? How do we look at archive footage? Do these images always portray “reality”? To what extent do our emotional reactions to documentary film images from the past shape our perception of private and public memories?
The Re-releasing History program at IDFA 2019 presents different approaches to “re-viewing” history and “re-cycling” cinema. Some filmmakers use documentary-type footage, others opt for TV media images, while still others employ private images such as family home movies. The editing styles, the use of sound and music elements, and the visual effects employed are all different, as are the archive sources of the material used, but one thing all these films have in common is the attempt to investigate the fallacy of truthfulness in how our world is represented. As filmmakers working with the archive, we are engaged in a relationship with the material firstly as spectators and secondly as editors: our perception of what we look at—images shot by other people in another time—is mediated by our sensibility and sensitivity as individuals defined by our own time and place. In viewing the footage, time greatly shapes our understanding of the images, but also cultural and gender identities strongly determine our affection for and knowledge of the archive. When we sit down to start work and think of how we can rearrange the material to tell the story from our own point of view, we find we can write a new narrative using the tools of editing.
A number of films in Re-releasing History interrogate representations of totalitarian dictatorships, from the most recent State Funeral to One Day in People’s Poland, the Argentine 1982 and the Portuguese Still Life. The makers of these films use “official” archive material, such as newsreels, TV broadcasts, police photographs, intervening at various degrees and with very different approaches. In State Funeral and in 1982, the editing adopts a linear cut of the footage, which compels us to decipher the mystification of political events like the death of Stalin and the Falklands War. Conversely, One Day in People’s Poland almost turns newsreels into fiction by juxtaposing the images with excerpts from letters and secret police reports, creating a disturbing portrait of life in communist Poland. Still Life brings together photographs of political prisoners, war reports and propaganda documentaries in an evocative montage supported by an eerie soundtrack, resulting in a nightmarish vision of dictatorship and colonialism.
Whether using the modes of appropriation, compilation or collage, films that use private footage such as home movies also address public history. As visual sources, amateur footage plays the specific role of being an eyewitness to history. In the case of the Hungarian Private History and Danube Exodus, the unintentional record of historical fragments and the intrusion of history in the private sphere fascinates and unsettles us. What’s so appealing in family pictures is the almost tactile sense of intimacy that they convey, expressed in the exchange of glances between those who are in front of and behind it. When I was viewing my own family’s home movies while working on For One More Hour with You, I was intrigued by the uncertain and irregular manner of amateur filming that seemed to create random “unnecessary” fragments of narration in between the frames. This provoked in me feelings of both closeness and identification, and displacement and nostalgia at the same time.
Representation of black cultural identity is addressed in two very different portrayals: Marshawn Lynch: a History and The Stuart Hall Project. The overwhelming babel of media images of the American football player collide with the silence of Lynch, which he deploys as a form of resistance against racial oppression of the sports system and society. Silence-as-rebellion has African-American roots tracing back to slavery, a legacy that the Jamaican-born intellectual Hall—an influential pioneer in cultural studies and co-founder of the New Left Review—deconstructs in his profound and compelling conversations. These were taken from British TV and magnificently interwoven with the subtly politically engaged music of Miles Davis.
Out of the Present ironically comments on an epochal time of political change. The collapse of the Soviet block in 1991 occurred during the 10-month space mission of Mir: the cosmonaut trapped in space learns of the historical events taking place back on Earth, which he can only observe from that sidereal distance. When he is asked by a journalist what he likes the most of the Earth seen from that God-like point of view, he replies: “What I cannot see from here: people”. Perhaps this can also be said about what the archive fever is all about: ourselves.
Alina Marazzi is a documentary, fiction film and theater director. Her main body of work focuses on female subjectivity, motherhood, and memory: Un’ora sola ti vorrei (For One More Hour with You, 2002) is her first personal film, a montage of her family home movies, telling the life of her lost mother.
Re-releasing History is supported by the Netherlands Institute for Sound and Vision.