Friday, April 22, 2011

Full Frame: Archive Brief

Though I've been working-up a couple of pieces for my Full Frame wrap-up, I've had a bee buzzing in my bonnet from the recent Daniel Loria indieWIRE piece "At the Full Frame Festival, Archives are the Future". First, the piece seems to gloss over the program, missing many of the works using significant archival material, though this in itself isn't odd for a wrap-up, it does feel a bit inconclusive here with the thesis presented. Second, though I haven't done a study on the use of archival still and moving archival material, this is obviously nothing new to documentary work, I'd even doubt this years program stands out much from programs of recent years - aside from the Prelinger series - though it feels as though use of archival materials has been gaining popularity over the past 5-10 years. That noted, it seems it would have made sense to flesh out the Spotlight itself to bulk-up the claims about the emphasis on archives

Like Daniel, or likely any other person covering a festival, it is difficult to get a complete sense of the films without being an insider with full access. While the archival angle seems an obvious one to consider, especially given the Prelinger spotlight, what struck me as interesting within this emphasis is the use of the archive against itself/its owner. My sample here is merely three (though there may be others), and each film taps the archive to a wildly different degree, but the idea is that these films are using archives of the State as evidence of poor behavior of the State. In THE AUTOBIOGRAPHY OF NICOLAE CEAUSESCU, the filmmakers use material that is (essentially) state propaganda to not only undermine itself by way of its obviously one-sided nature, but also suggest the state coming apart as there are a few brief moments in Ceausescu's later years that are used that portray him in a less virile and commanding light. A thoroughly compelling three hours of linear archival stitching (though it seems there might have been two reels our of order as NC celebrates his 60th before his 55th). A second film using the archive against its master, noted by Daniel, is SCENES OF A CRIME, which presents as being about the interview/interrogation process, though is more importantly about the front end of a broken - and racist - justice system. As noted, the film leans heavily on footage the police taped of the ten hour (two session) interrogation, perhaps just over half the film is comprised of this material. In each of these instances, the film arguably could not have been made without the archival material, and in each case the archive is biting the hand that has fed it. A third instance that struck me in more of a cautionary way, not quite fitting the bite-the-hand model, was BETTER THIS WORLD. Here, the filmmakers have culled street camera recordings that were expressly installed to monitor citizens - using Homeland Security monies - to "protect" the area around the 2008 Republican National
Convention in St, Paul. The importance of these three films uses of these specific archives turns on issues of citizenship, state accountability and transparency, and proves the necessity of access to these archives.

Two other outliers on the theme that I experienced over the festival were PAGE ONE: INSIDE THE NEW YORK TIMES and HOT COFFEE. PAGE ONE touches on the theme as it addresses its tenuous relationship with Wikileaks, most significantly the release of the aircraft video of civilians and reporters being gunned down. HOT COFFEE plays the theme from the corporate angle by way of the paper trail left by McDonalds in both training manuals as well as compiled records. Clearly, access to these archives is essential to keep the state and corporations accountable to citizens and the public at-large. On access, during several of the conversations tied to the Prelinger Spotlight, the issue of economic access as a gatekeeping mechanism to archives was addressed - an issue that seems will be heavily in play in the years to come.


  1. Great piece, I appreciate the mention and understand your concerns. There were many other great films at Full Frame that helped continue the conversation that Prelinger's series raised, but I decided to highlight the films that premiered at Full Frame or had recently premiered as much as I could. Some of the films that played at Sundance and SXSW definitely fit in to the conversation but I find that it's always good to give new work a nod when possible, especially from festivals that focus more on films than the "film scene."

    Glad you enjoyed the festival and that it's still maintaining a dialogue, it's always good to read quality insight from readers and be able to continue the dialogue online. Looking forward to reading your take on Full Frame!


  2. Thanks. I'd be curious to get your thoughts on some of the ideas I tossed out, namely my sense there is a recent increase in archival materials used, though not necessarily a current spike.Of the 22 films I caught at FF (a couple of them shorts, a few coming in at just under an hour), six, maybe seven of them relied heavily on the archive, and three of these were in the Prelinger Spotlight; probably another eight or nine used something from the archive, though not in a foundational way. It seems these numbers are probably fairly typical of docs these days, though probably skewed a bit due to the Prelinger series (and I can't believe I only caught three Prelinger titles, though I did attend RAW MATERIAL and a conversation. Really kick myself for skipping LOST LANDSCAPES, opted to tag along with someone for PAGE ONE at the last minute, clearly the wrong choice.)

    Also, not sure if you read my take on PRUITT-IGOE, it looks like you caught it, I'd love to get your thoughts on it. I'm utterly baffled by it, and as we are talking about the archives, I thought it did a fairly poor job of utilizing its material. Some potentially great material, but it seemed fairly haphazardly edited, not sustaining a thesis, and often at odds with the voice-over/narration. I'd also love some of your thoughts on BROTHER, which was good to experience, but outside the exposure to the structure, it did little for me narrative-wise.