DOC NYC reconvened its virtual “PRO” lineup of panels and masterclasses on Oct. 6 for a discussion about archival footage in documentary filmmaking.
Panelists were Shola Lynch (pictured, top right; Free Angela and All Political Prisoners), independent filmmaker and curator of the New York Public Library’s Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture; Lia Jusino (bottom left), director of archival research at Vice Media; Candice Murray (bottom right), VP of editorial at Shutterstock; filmmaker and artist Mariam Ghani (bottom center; What We Left Unfinished), and editor Carla Gutierrez (top center; RBG, Pray Away).
The session was moderated by DOC NYC’s Caitlin Boyle (top left).
Here, Realscreen has compiled a few takeaways from the session.
Filmmaker Ghani was assisting the Afghanistan national film archive — Afghan Film — with a proof of concept digitization project nine years ago when she began What We Left Unfinished, a documentary about five unfinished fiction films from the Communist era in Afghanistan.
“What finding the archival material entailed was basically first unearthing the silent rush prints… They had basically been printed as dailies and then put on a shelf in the building of the Afghan Film archives and never opened again. They were covered in a [thick] layer of dust,” Ghani said.
“These are really interesting documents because all the finished films of that time really passed through so many layers of censorship that it’s hard to use them as any kind of historical record… In these unfinished films, because you still have the raw footage which otherwise was usually discarded, because we had access to the rush prints and the raw footage, we actually could see a lot more of the real history of the time even though these were fictional films.”
Ghani and her team then searched for the 35 millimetre negatives in locations such as Moscow and London.
“I got in touch with all these different exiles, both political and filmmaker exiles, and asked them what had happened to different things they had worked on and with, and then it turned out everything was still in the Afghan Film archives but they just haven’t cataloged it yet.”
For Ghani, every archive presents a slightly different version of history.
“Every person within it has a very different interpretation of what the archive means and does and holds. And so your personal relationships with people in an archive can make a very big difference to what it can yield to you as a filmmaker,” she said.
Vice Media’s Jusino, who oversees the department responsible for researching and licensing material company-wide from editorial to commercial, agreed.
“The two most important things that really get us through is having a department with a variety of researchers and skill sets,” Jusino, who previously served as archival producer on Martin Scorsese’s The 50 Year Argument, said. “And then number two is relationship building with your vendors, with your archives, with individuals that you meet along the way, whether it’s principal characters that we’re interviewing, or [if] someone connects you to a guy with a great little local archive of ’90s VHS tapes from his LA neighborhood that he just would love to digitize but doesn’t have the budget.”
A TREMENDOUS DEMAND
Murray, who oversees Shutterstock’s global editorial business, said the company has an archive of more than 50 million images and 250,000 editorial video clips.
“I think it might be our best kept secret,” she said.
As filmmakers face production restrictions and shutdowns amid the COVID-19 pandemic, Murray said she’s seen “tremendous” demand from documentarians and prodcos for archive content.
“In the past few months we’ve partnered with and provided archival content across a variety of different genres ranging from true crime to the Royals and history of celebrities and documentary films,” Murray explained. “We are committed to partnering and working with these folks to make sure we can help them achieve those budget goals as well as tell the stories they want to tell.”
Murray said Shutterstock is keen to work with filmmakers looking to license content.
“Working with us, we’ll help you bring it to market and ultimately monetize it for you,” she said.
For Lynch, however, the rising cost of archive material has created a barrier for independent filmmakers.
“It’s increasingly difficult to tell historical stories because of the cost,” she said. “When I started in the ’90s, you could license a photograph worldwide for $50.”
Lynch is currently working on a project about American track and field athlete Florence Griffith Joyner.
“The cost of the archival may kill the project. It’s completely doubled the production costs and that’s not a workable business model for any distributor,” she said.
Jusino hopes the industry can make a few changes, namely building partnerships with other filmmakers, so archival producing doesn’t sink a project. She put forward a hypothetical situation where a producer partners with another prodco to split the cost on archive that’s “out of our budget,” but also has to contend with the reality that the partner prodco might use the content in another project — perhaps a competing project or one with a “different angle.”
Offering an editor’s perspective, Gutierrez said it’s important for filmmakers to communicate budget restrictions.
“Engage your editing team early on in the conversation about what we can afford or not because I’ve seen a lot of cases where people are only finding out how much their archival is going to cost after they’ve [started filming],” she said.
“It just saves so much heartache later when you realize you have $100,000 less to finish the project than you maybe thought you did,” Ghani added.
Lynch, whose work includes Chisholm ’72: Unbought & Unbossed and Free Angela and All Political Prisoners, and Gutierrez (RBG, Pray Away) shared insights on working with archives of public figures.
“There’s always opportunities and challenges with archival but I think the purpose that I always bring into the work is just how to get closer to the voice of your protagonist,” Gutierrez said.
She added filmmakers should be selective, choosing the best, most character-revealing footage.
“RBG, for example, there was a lot of archival that nobody had seen, that the directors were able to get from personal archives and that’s always what people have talked about… That they had discovered gems.”
Gutierrez stressed that the best archive isn’t always visual.
“You can just have a lot of fun with that and get very experimental… You can pull from a lot of different types of archives.”
Lynch, who called the genre “historical vérité”, agreed — although, her 2004 feature about Brooklyn Congresswoman Shirley Chisholm presented other challenges.
“She had been written out of history in a certain respect. She had sort of been dismissed. She didn’t have the reverence and love that, let’s say, RBG had and so it was about reclaiming her story. I think that has to do with the politics of history, race and gender and how we see certain accomplishments.
“I’ll give an example with Free Angela. We think Angela Davis is very famous within a political world and strata but most of the material we found was mislabeled in our commercial archives,” Lynch said.
The filmmaker and her team had to think strategically — digging through labels such as “miscellaneous afros” or “miscellaneous women of the ’70s”
“One of the challenges of telling full stories about people of color is that archive often doesn’t exist,” Lynch said. “That emotional range, that broader sense of humanity gets left out and it becomes much more of a challenge as filmmakers, when we’re telling stories about people of color, to make sure it is there so that we’re not perpetuating stereotypes.”