Archive Valley, The Right Footage

Archives and the Future of Documentary: Industry Insight from DocNYC


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From November 9th to 16th this year, the documentary industry converged on New York City for DocNYC, a festival dedicated to the documentary craft that the Wall Street Journal has recently called “an essential summit for all kinds of documentary filmmaking.” The Archive Valley team went to New York to meet with filmmakers – from documentary veterans to up-and-coming talent – and to take the pulse of the industry. This year’s edition and industry program was a great opportunity for discussion around archive-driven films, which featured prominently in the the past few editions. 

This year in particular we saw a real excitement around archives and the new ways in which filmmakers are engaging with material from the past to create engaging experiences for audiences. From news archives and family photos to crowd-sourced archive footage, the creative use of archival material continues to produce documentaries break tradition and immerse viewers in the past.

One of this year’s most prominent premieres was award-winning director Brett Morgen’s “Jane,” which immerses audiences in the world of the famous primatologist Jane Goodall. Morgen was approached by the National Geographic Society, who had taken the decision to share their film archives of Jane Goodall’s expeditions for the society with the world. The film is a truly immersing experience, and shows that archives can not only be re-purposed, as Errol Morris suggested in the pre-screening discussion with Morgen, but that they can take on a whole new life when approached for their cinematic value and not only for their historical value.

Other films shown at the festival that presented interesting uses of archive material were “Cuba and the Cameraman,” by Jon Alpert, which made use of footage he filmed in Cuba in the 1970s to bring the Castro era back to life, and Yance Ford’s “Strong Island,” whose creative filming of family photos created an aesthetic experience that wove together the past and the present in which the story is being told. Also, Alice Elliot’s “Miracle on 42nd Street” relied on news archives to revive the atmosphere of Hell’s Kitchen in the 1970s.

Industry sessions throughout the festival presented filmmakers and participants with themed talks on a different topic in film production each day. “Editing Day” was an opportunity for filmmakers to share their experiences around the creative use of archive footage in storytelling. In a panel called “Getting Creative with Archives” Sierra Pettengill, the archive producer for “The Reagan Show,” Francisco Bello, the film’s editor, and Dan Lindsay, who directed “LA 92,” discussed their creative process using archives and shared their experiences working to give audiences immersive experiences.

For “The Reagan Show,” Pettengill and Bello had access to outtakes from President Ronald Reagan’s television appearances that allowed them to show audiences how he acted with his team and how he prepared for interviews. This material, they say, gave audiences new insight into the man, but brought up the question, “What are you trying to show? How do you tell the story with archives without manipulating the audience?” The team for “The Reagan Show,” ultimately decided that using this material, that had previously been considered private, was in the public interest and was part of their audience’s audiovisual heritage.

Discussing the making of “LA 92,” Lindsay brought up a different set of challenges faced by filmmakers – like himself, Alice Elliot, and many others – when the footage is not easily found in one place. How do you re-create a moment in an immersive way? In trying to re-create Los Angeles during the LA riots, Lindsay spoke of how he and his research team had to be particularly creative and persistent to get access to enough material from diverse sources to tell the story. Weather broadcast footage, though one certainly wouldn’t think of it first, proved to be one solution they found to this problem. Lindsay also called on future generations to preserve the images of their ways of life and environment for future filmmakers to use to tell their stories.

The difficulty of accessing local news archives in the US seems to be a recurring theme. In his panel on the secrets of post-production, Daniel DiMauro, director, writer, editor and producer of “Get Me Roger Stone,” addressed the complexity of working with local news sources whose storage and licensing practices differ from one local station to the next. He emphasized the importance of professional archive researchers in this work, and the importance of being creative in how you conduct research and use the footage.  In an era where more and more productions are trying to get by on fair use, knowing how to navigate archives and how to negotiate licenses is as important as ever.

Overall this year’s edition and our talks with filmmakers and producers we met emphasized that there is a growing space for archive-driven storytelling in the documentary market. This space is fuelled by the creative new ways people are approaching and using archive material, and by the people who are working to preserve and find unique footage to offer audiences new experiences.

In our meeting at DocNYC with Daniel McCabe, cinematographer and director of “This is Congo,” he emphasized that filmmakers like himself are being approached more and more by other filmmakers for their unique footage. The fact that they are willing to share their archives bodes well for the documentary filmmakers of the future.

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