Why are Archive Documentaries Important?

Documentary film has always had a complex relationship with archive material and archival practices.

In the 20th century media texts, such as television programmes, were transitory. It was assumed that a programme would air once, maybe twice if you were lucky, and then never be seen again by the public. However, the internet’s prominence in our lives has changed these once transitory texts into objects of permanence. Audiences now assume that once published, texts should be available to be revisited, resold and engaged with. Platforms like Youtube, Netflix and BBC iPlayer make this possible. The online library becomes some what of an archive in and of itself, allowing media texts to have an afterlife.

Archive has historic, educational and entertainment value however it needs technological, creative and curatorial skills to be able to unlock its full potential. The internet encourages publishing material and then connecting to audiences and similar texts. So you could argue that TV frameworks are becoming outdated.

If you consider another creative medium, such as music, you do not think of music from the past to be ‘archive music’. A song from the 1950’s is not considered to be ‘archive’, it is thought of as an album to be enjoyed in the present, perhaps even added to a playlist amongst recently created music. This framework encourages the integration of relevant material from both the past and the present for audiences to enjoy. It is interesting to consider what kind of digital innovation will be necessary to get archive film to be handled in the same way.

Archive as Illustrations

Jaimie Baron, uses Andre Silva’s experimental project ‘Spam letter + Google Image Search = Video Entertainment’ as an example of an appropriation film. It is an ahistorical, apolitical pastiche which examines the historical authenticity and potential misuse of archive in film production. In the absence of historical authenticity, the film is able to critique and examine it’s presence in other films. As the title suggests, the film is made with strict creative constraints, using a spam letter as the driving force of the film which is then illustrated by the results of a google image search of each word contained within the letter. The film highlights, in a rather disturbing fashion, the limitations some filmmakers face when using archive in a literal and solely illustrative manner. As Baron says, the content of the film ‘challenge[s] the distinction between ”appropriate” and ”inappropriate” uses of the found document as well as any reified notions of both the intentional and the historical’. The use of google image search in the creation of this film is also interesting. Whilst computers and their software are human creations, they are able to operate without human intervention. The search engine provides the human user with a visual result which may distort the original creator’s intended use for the image. In doing so, Baron argues computers supersede the human creators intent.


Marcia Landy argues that history programmes that rely on archive film are too heavily reliant on what people at the time decided to point their cameras at. What they considered to be significant at the time, may not match the archive that filmmakers are looking for to create content today. Which raises the question, if there is no relevant archive film available can a programme be produced about the subject?

Of course you can still produce documentaries about subjects with limited archive footage available. Lars von Trier illustrated in his film ‘The Five Obstructions’ (2003) that creative constraints can actually be a great help to the creative process. Limitations such as a lack of archive footage available spurs filmmakers to think outside of the box and work around these issues. An example of this is Ken Burns’ outstanding documentary ‘The Civil War’ . Burns uses archive images, letters and period music edited together seamlessly with dramatic reconstructions to give audiences a sense of historical authenticity. These assets paired with the talking head interviews included in the film allow for the story of an important time in American history to be told in a compelling and engaging manner.



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