SHEFFIELD — From the most experienced to new and emerging talent, archive footage is an essential device in the documentarian’s toolbox.
In a session titled “Playtime with Archive” on Saturday (June 10) at Sheffield Doc/Fest, a panel of filmmakers who remix, reinterpret and play with archive film shared how they source archive material, manage rights issues, and discussed the reasons behind the different approaches taken to working with archive footage.
A focus of the discussion proved to be if a documentarian has a responsibility to the original filmmaker when re-purposing their footage. Bell said the traditional view of archive footage is like a jigsaw puzzle, which each piece having a specific spot where it’s meant to be placed. However, he said, archive footage is more like Lego pieces — you can use them to make and create different things.
Smriti Keshari related the experience to a documentary she directed, the bomb, which explores the power of nuclear weapons and their appeal. Keshari said that while sifting through over 400 hours of archival material, the artistic vision of different filmmakers would come through. Jack Warner, for example, was the head of film for the U.S. military prior to leading Warner Bros., and his artistic vision and focus was prevalent in the footage.
Simon McCallum, who represented the role of the archivist on the panel, noted that in his role he is particularly conscious of what the original filmmaker is envisioning, and that archivists tend to get a bit protective about re-purposing footage. McCallum programs the BFI’s network of mediateques around the UK, offering free public access to highlights from the BFI National Archive — among the largest and most diverse film and TV archives in the world.
The BFI National Archive is just one resource UK filmmakers have access to (the North West and Yorkshire Film Archive, for example), but as Bell pointed out, there’s no “archive tap” that a filmmaker can turn on somewhere. Getting access to archives, much how traditional documentarians need to gain access to subjects for interviews, requires research, perseverance, money and the ability to form relationships.
Even when it comes to archive footage that comes directly from a person, as opposed to an organization, a director needs to be prepared to do some legwork.
Bell compared the process to making a new friend — even if you meet someone and get along with them spectacularly, they’re not going to give you their phone with all their photos and contacts on it. Similarly, it’s unlikely a source will give a filmmaker access to all their footage until a relationship has been formed and trust has been built that the documentarian won’t abuse this access.
“It’s a social and collaborative process in general,” said Bell, adding that he often looks to empower the sources he works with, as they’re known to hold back material they deem to be “useless” or that the director “probably won’t like.”
“People are always self-censoring and editing their material, so you have this sense of being a detective as well as a counselor,” Bell explained.
While Steve Hawley was conscious of respecting the original filmmaker in his doc, War Memorial, he also felt responsible for the families of the subjects he showed. War Memorial is part of an ongoing documentary projects based around films which remaining from WW2 soldiers sending filmed messages home.
“When I was younger, I had a lot more thoughts about artistic licence,” said Hawley, adding that now he is more conscious of how the footage was originally intended to be used.
But if a documentarian hopes to have a bit of flexibility with acquiring rights to footage, it should be expected that the same may happen to their footage later on as well.
Keshari says she’s seen her footage used in other places, but now with digital content becoming so prevalent, you sometimes have to evolve with that.
“It’s about elevating and raising the dialogue of what you wanted to talk about,” she said. “In my experience, I’ve let my ownership go a little bit.”