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ARCHEOLOGY OR ALCHEMY - THE CORK LECTURE

RICHARD KILBORN Cork University conference lecture 2010 _ABOUT The Maelstrom 0

Archaeology or alchemy: The use of archive material in contemporary documentary.

 I’d first of all like to make a couple of general points about what I’ll be talking about this afternoon. The first thing I’d like to say that this lecture is a kind of spin-off from work I’m just beginning rather than based on the fruits of long researching. Some of the points I make will therefore be a little tentative. The second general point relates to the lecture content. What I’m doing in this lecture is two things: I’ll be saying something initially about how material contained in archives can be accessed and processed for the purpose of research investigation. Then, in the second part of the lecture I’ll go on to consider how a particular form of archival material (in this case home movie footage produced by amateur filmmakers) can be incorporated into the body of a certain type of reflective or essayistic documentary. By way of illustration I’ll be playing you a longish clip from a documentary made by the Hungarian filmmaker and video artist Peter Forgacs. (I should perhaps say at this stage that for some years now I’ve had a particular interest in documentary. If anyone here is doing a project that involves the study of film or television documentary [or something related] then I’d be very happy to sit down and have an extended conversation about it]

Okay, so let’s get stuck in to the topic.  A quick reminder about my title: “Archaeology or alchemy: the use of archive material in contemporary documentary”. First of all a word or two about key terms in this title. [Whatever your research investigation and whatever language you are operating in, it’s always advisable to be up front   about your key terms].

 

Archaeology: it’s the systematic or scientific study of material remains and remnants. Archaeology as a practice springs from the all too human, deep-rooted desire to understand more about our how our forebears lived, what they produced, and what their culture was like. Archaeology is therefore concerned with an act of excavation designed to uncover what otherwise might have been hidden from view. Sometimes involves the same kind of patient detective work that you have to display when putting together a PhD thesis.

 

Alchemy on the other hand is a very different type of practice. Whereas archaeology is usually considered to an altogether worthwhile and laudable practice, alchemy is often viewed as much more dubious. You could define is as a “Medieval chemical science and philosophical doctrine aiming to achieve the transmutation of base metals into gold”.  Alchemy is sometimes used, more generally, to suggest any process by means of which you transform something common into something precious. You might even go so far as to claim that certain types of media research are like that: You scrabble around in dusty libraries looking for relevant material – and all you seem to discover is dross. But then one fine day your luck turns and you come up with some genuine golden nuggets and with these nuggets you’ve able to produce a wonderful thesis – and people are blinded by the brilliance of what you’ve come up with…

 

Enough of this idle speculation. Let me say something about the word archive.  It seems quite straightforward. An archive is a place where records or documents relating to past events or practices are kept or deposited. The implication is that some attempt is being made to preserve these documents for the use of enterprising, truth-seeking folk such as those gathered in this room. The term ‘archive’ also refers to the corpus of material kept in the storage facility (whatever kind of repository this be). In other words ‘archive’ refers to the documents, the books, the pamphlets, the films themselves.

 

Now, I’d be willing to take a small bet that much of the research work you have been doing so far will have involved some kind of archival activity. It’s not my intention to provide you with a shopping list of do’s and don’ts when working in archives. [Perhaps on some future occasion we could have a workshop on ‘Working in archives’] What I’d like to do is just to provide a few reflections on what I’ve just called ‘archival activity’. This kind of activity is often more complicated than you think. There’s first of all discovering or locating the relevant archive and establishing what they contain. Then there's the often-tricky business of gaining access. [As any documentary filmmaker will tell you, half the battle in a documentary venture is actually gaining access.]

Once you’ve succeeded in gaining access, there comes the equally challenging business of sifting, filtering and gathering material. Here all I can suggest is that you do this as systematically and as efficiently as possible. As so often in life, careful preparation is the key to success. If you’re seeking to gain access to the archive holdings of media organisations you’ve often discover that these are often only for internal use. You may, on the other hand, be able to negotiate a form of limited access if you approach the organisation in the right way. There’s a particularly helpful chapter in the book Researching Communications: A practical guide to methods in media and cultural analysis [edited by David Deacon et al] published by Edward Arnold. The chapter provides a mine of information on such issues as: the credibility of the source material contained in an archive and suggestions on how best to go about mining this information for your own purposes.

{If time allows tell students about personal experience about delving in a library archive at the University of Warwick: Was doing research several decades ago on German propaganda material put out during the 3rd Reich. I turned up one day bright eyed and bushy-tailed to do work in the Library, but was told in no uncertain terms that I would have to make formal application to work in this particular archive since they had heavy restrictions governing who was allowed access. On further inquiry I was told that they had had a number of suspicious individuals wanting to gain access, people who were seeking after Nazi memorabilia in which the Brits have always had a rather unhealthy interest. The end of this story: I did eventually gain access to the Warwick archive, which, by the ways, resembled a bank vault with bars all round it. It taught me a lesson that one needs to make detailed inquiry about gaining access before turning up at the door!]

 

Two other points about working with archive material:

1)    It’s worth asking yourself sometimes exactly WHO has created the archive in the first place. [“All the sources we might want to use in research have been produced in particular conditions, with certain aims in mind, and are indelibly shaped by the pressures, possibilities and temptations generated by the political and cultural contexts in which they are embedded.” Hodder 1994: 394]

On whose authority was the archiving process set in train? Who provided the funding for this to occur? In which institution is the archive lodged? And what does the institution in question stand to gain from throwing open this archive? All of us are aware that we live in a so-called Knowledge Society, but we also know that ‘knowledge is power’. Nowadays, given the ease with which a vast amount of material can be electronically or digitally stored, this has opened up many new commercial possibilities for exploiting archived products. Newspapers may have traditionally had quite a short shelf life as consumer products but they have a longer life commercial potential when stored on CD or offered for sale online. Film companies have also not been slow to begin to exploit their archives of past productions by re-releasing them or repackaging them for retail on DVD.

 

2)    Having spoken of the institutions that stand to gain in some way by creating or opening up an archive, I invite you to consider a question that I should really have broached at the outset. Put crudely the questions runs: What actually constitutes archival material. Now I don’t wasn’t to get involved in a theoretical debate at this stage, but I would like you to consider the following proposition. So far, when I’ve been talking about ‘archive material’ I’ve made the assumption that things are fairly unproblematic.  An archive consists of a body of material that has been lodged or deposited in some form of holding facility to which eager-beaver researchers can gain access. But it’s also the case, of course, that there are a vast number of items ‘out there’ that in themselves constitute a vast untapped reservoir or repository of archival material.

 

What have brought this as yet untapped store within our grasp are the new digital technologies. Indeed you might even claim that one of the [unforeseen] consequences of the Internet revolution has been that we’re having to rethink our traditional notions of the archive.

 

For guys of my generation the archive was, to our way of thinking, a place – a kind of shrine or treasure-trove - where you were in physical proximity to objects and artefacts that could help you in your quest for historical knowledge. There are obvious connections here between an ‘archive’ and a ‘museum’. The beauty of the archive was that you came into close contact with these objects.  You treated them with reverence. As often as not you had to don a pair of white gloves so as not to sully them.

 

Within the last few decades all this has changed. Now in our marvellous new digital era each of us but a mouse-click away from a quite bewildering array of archive material. This has led to a considerable measure of perturbation among some academic researchers as to how you deal with what some see as a kind of “archival overload”.  Only a few days ago I received an invitation to participate in a conference at the University of California entitled “Reimagining the Archive: Remapping and Remixing Traditional Models in the Digital Era”

:

Reimagining the Archive: 

Remapping and Remixing Traditional Models in the Digital Era

November 12, 13, 14, 2010

University of California, Los Angeles, James Bridges Theater 

 

Symposium - Screenings - Speakers 

Opening keynote - Rick Prelinger, archivist, filmmaker, founder Prelinger

Archives.  

 

Digitality has radically and dynamically transformed the role of traditional

archives and museums as repositories for revered, to-be-safeguarded cultural

objects. As de facto archives created by users and industry organizations

proliferate online; as the social engagement and complexity of Web 2.0

culture expand; and as expansive copyright regimes entail ever more

intrusive forms of monitoring and enforcement, archives' traditional

missions of custody and controlled access are being challenged by the new

habits and expectations of scholars, researchers, and the general public

alike.

 

We invite archivists, scholars, educators, technology professionals, and

artists to submit 500-word abstracts for PAPERS, PANELS, PRESENTATIONS,

POSTERS, and DEMONSTRATIONS that explore and examine the wide spectrum of

issues influencing and impacting the evolution of archival access, practice,

technology, and research in the digital era.

 

Working with archive film

 

So far what I’ve had to say relates to all kind of archival material. I now want to move on to consider the specific instance of archive film: how film archives are created + how other filmmakers, documentary film and TV programme makers in particular, use this material in their own practice.

 

First of all that question about setting up or creating a film archive. It goes without saying that archiving – like any other form of apparently systematic collection – takes place according to very particular, though sometimes unacknowledged selection criteria. What’s included or excluded in an archive sometimes depends on subjective judgments being practised by the selectors. If ever you find yourself working in a film archive therefore it’s worth trying to discover more about:

 

a)     The conditions under which the materials that finished up in the archive were originally produced and

b)    The criteria according to which the materials were chosen for this archive. Have they, for instance, been subject to any mediating influences in the process of being archived.

 

But what about the actual use of archive material in documentary film-work? Quite frequently documentary filmmakers involved in producing history series will resort to archive footage (often referred to as ‘stock footage’) in order to authenticate or underpin the accounts they are giving. It’s all part of the attempt to ‘bring the past to life’.  There are certain dangers in doing this, however. (And if I were doing this as a seminar I would at this stage invite you to reflect on some of the potential hazards). But since this is a lecture presentation I’ll provide you with the answers:

1)    First of all there’s the need on part of filmmakers to recognise that the footage itself may well contain biases and distortions. A classic example of this would be footage shot by the Nazis during World War 2 of the populations they had subjugated. Nowadays this self-same footage is now included in certain TV histories as if it were an objective piece of news reporting and there’s no acknowledgement of the purposes for which this footage was shot.

 

2)    Secondly the very absence of archive footage may in itself be potentially distorting. It results in an over-reliance on what footage is available. Again referring to World War 2 documentaries one filmmaker (Alan Rosenthal) has this to say about such ‘structuring absences’: “ Because you don’t have archive footage of the Yugoslav partisan resistance (which of course the Nazis never shot), the subject is never mentioned in the film. In other words, unless you are careful, the sheer existence of archive material may dictate the line of your film, whereas it should be subservient to it.”

 

 

Quite often – as I’ve suggested – archive film will be used for illustrative or evidentiary purposes. In these cases it will comprise just a part of the documentary on offer. There are other instances, whoever, where a film will be made up entirely of archive footage. These films are frequently described as compilation films. Compilation films actually have a long history. They go back to the work of Esther Schub who made a film in 1927 The Fall of the Romanov Dynasty. Another famous compilation film was made by Emile de Antonio in 1964: Point of Order concerns the infamous Joseph McCarthy hearings in the United States. Perhaps the most famous compilation film is The Atomic Café, a film constructed almost entirely from documentary or propaganda material produced by various US government agencies about the inherent safety of nuclear radiation.

 

Most of the archive film I’ve talked about so far is the type to which the somewhat disparaging label ‘stock footage’ is attached. In many cases this provides an officially sanctioned view of history. A very different type of archive material is that contained in private collections where individuals have gathered together far more personal memory traces. It’s the kind of stuff you find in home-movie collections. (It’s sometimes referred to as ‘amateur film’). A growing number of filmmakers (including Peter Forgacs) have begun to specialise in hunting down such material and using it as the basis for the production of a reflective type of documentary that seeks to extend or complement more traditional or conventional accounts. Those accounts may have been more concerned with recounting The Great Story, whereas what Forgacs and company are about is inviting the viewer to consider what may have been missing in those more conventional histories.

 

It’s a particularly challenging [demanding] type of filmmaking that calls for incredible tenacity and perseverance on the filmmaker’s part. It’s by no means coincidental that Forgacs styles himself as a kind of archaeologist, attempting to uncover hidden truths about life in Central Europe in the period from the late 1920s, through the traumas of the 1930s and 1940s and continuing right through the difficult Cold War years. In filmmaking of this type you’re dealing with material that was not originally destined for public viewing, so part of the filmmaker's task will be to represent and recontextualise the material in such a way that it will speak to a 21st century audience. For almost 3 decades now, Forgacs has been assembling a large archive of home movie material and with help of this material producing a series of family-oriented films that he refers to as ‘video operas’. This is what Forgacs himself feels he’s aiming at”

These films are full of revelatory moments about how it was then, about how they felt, about what they felt the need to represent. If these revelations of self are then placed in a context where you can sense the whole culture, its history and background, and how particular personalities fit into it, the results become very dynamic.            

 

 

 One of the ways in which Forgacs does this is by juxtaposing scenes and images extracted from home movie footage with various interviews with surviving family members and also by presenting the story as if it were a developing narrative. The result is a kind of essayistic documentary that reflects what Forgacs calls a “hidden cultural history”. The Forgacs films speak to the audience in such a way that viewers are prompted to make thought-provoking cross-connections between the narrative of the home movies and the meta-narrative of the interview.

 

 In one sense a lot of the material that Forgacs has unearthed doesn’t appear to have any special claim on our attention. Like so much hoe-movie stuff it appears, at first sight, to be incredibly mundane. It’s only when you look more closely however, that you begin to realise that it’s not just archaeology in which Forgacs has been involved. He’s also been a kind of alchemist in the way he has approached this material. Listen to what he has to say on how he works on these films:

 

What’s really interesting is that these amateur films are full of faults. The majority – let’s say 99% of these home movies are boring. Goring. And bad. So one has to dig a lot of sand before you find one ounce of gold. But suddenly, you see all the sand is like gold. It’s also a paradox (Boyle: 14)

[A bit like archival research in which some of you are involved. As you dig deeper, as you extend your search, you begin to recognise that even some of the most unpromising material is much more relevant than you initially imagined.]

 

So what’s the key to understanding what Forgacs is about? Well, on the one hand he’s clearly concentrating on using the home movie footage to tell a person-centred story as members of a family go about their usually unexceptional lives. Classic home-movie territory, if you will. At the same time, as a viewer, you get a strong feeling that you are being invited to consider what might be going on beyond the frame. What events, for instance, are being played out on the larger political stage that would be likely to have a shaping impact on the lives of those on whom attention is being focussed?

 

In the case of Forgacs, the fact that most of the families on whom he focuses are Jewish means that, as viewers with the benefit of historical hindsight, our response to the usually quite upbeat sequences is coloured by a much darker undertow of anguish and melancholy – knowing what we know no about how history tragically unfolded. Viewing a Forgacs film can therefore be a quite bittersweet experience. As one critic put it: “As the film progresses, the absence of war in the domestic home movies increasingly becomes – for us, if not for the participants – a powerful presence. It becomes almost impossible to look at even the most innocent and playful scenes of everyday family life without an awareness of what else was going on in a European society transformed by war.” (Wees: 8)

 

Finally – and I promise you that this is my parting shot – a Forgacs film will always, implicitly or explicitly, include some reflections on what film-making of this type can achieve. Forgacs is more than usually beholden to filmmakers who, like himself, wish to chronicle the lived experience of their fellow human beings. His films can, therefore, in some respects be seen as extended reflections on the contribution that film can make to our understanding of how lives are impacted by external events and also how film, in turn, can challenge us to new ways of seeing.

 

 

PLAY CLIP