We're living in an era in which archive material is at documentary makers' fingertips. It's right there on the web; it's available from archives, and filmmakers can get it from stock houses too.
The ease of accessing archive footage poses both aesthetic and practical challenges for filmmakers. These challenges will be addressed at length in a special industry session on Using Archive Footage in Documentaries.
Elif Rongen-Kaynakci of the EYE Film Institute will use the session to point out that archives and stock houses – the main sources for archive material –work in very different ways. The latter are "completely geared to working with production houses and documentary makers" in a practical and commercial way, while cultural bodies such as EYE have a different agenda. "[Providing archive material] is not our core business, but we do have interesting material and we do like to participate in projects."
Organisations like EYE aren't driven primarily by commercial considerations. Unlike the stock houses, they're unlikely to have a shot-by-shot description of every piece of film in their vaults. This will make research more difficult. On the other hand, what they do offer is curatorial expertise. They will almost certainly have seen the footage and will therefore be able to contextualise and describe it.
Another key difference is that stock footage companies will own the rights to material which they will then license to the filmmakers. Archives, by contrast, will generally have a bigger variety of materials but will ask the filmmakers themselves to clear the rights.
One fascinating archive based film in this year's IDFA selection is Letters from Baghdad, about archaeologist Gertrude Bell, often called the "female Lawrence of Arabia". Directors Zeva Oelbaum and Sabine Krayenbühl, who will also be in attendance at the session, worked closely with EYE on their project.
"What we [at EYE] found interesting was that we gradually realised they weren't looking for the actual footage [of Bell] the way a television news programme would. They were looking for general images evoking the atmosphere in which Bell was living. For me, this is a kind of found-footage film. They're using a close-up of a fruit tree or a bird that was shot in 1912 but, by looking at this specific footage, you wouldn't know in which country it was shot."
In other words, the filmmakers are using archive in an impressionistic, artistic fashion, not taking an exclusively factual approach. They were delighted with what they discovered in the archives. It helped that Rongen-Kaynakci is involved in the "Ottoman Project," which set out to bring together and restore silent films shot in the Middle East and the Balkans. This meant she knew not only what material was held at EYE, but also what material is held in other archives.
One change Rongen-Kaynakci has noticed in recent years is that filmmakers are making more and more use of amateur footage and home movies. Another is that many documentary makers actually often prefer it when material looks scratchy and old. Archivists want to clean it up and restore it, but filmmakers like the material to be grainy and in black and white. "They expect it to look old and if it doesn't look old enough, they say, 'Oh, that's strange.'"
Thanks to digital technology, found footage can be cleaned up to such an extent it looks as if it was shot yesterday. Archival material can also create a sense of distance between the audience and the filmmaker – and this can be alienating. "If you put something on the screen that says YouTube, it creates the feeling that you're not there, you're not in the moment any more", director Peter Entell (Like Dew in the Sun) notes of one of the challenges of using archive in documentaries.
Festival director Ally Derks has noted changes in the way modern archive is used. "You see a lot of the same material, the same archive in (different) documentaries. That never happened 10 years ago. Now, all of a sudden, excerpts from the internet or from the news, you see these things coming back… they are used over and over again."
Archivists tend to have cordial relationships with their colleagues at stock companies like British Pathé and Footage Factory. "They are people just like us, but the only thing is that the whole company and their operation is driven differently. The way they catalogue is different. They chop the footage into very small chunks so that they can deliver it separately and the way their databases are searchable is different. But I admire them very much. I use their databases to identify some of our stock as well."