From The Stuart Hall Project (all images courtesy International Documentary Film Festival Amsterdam)

Archival footage, as an index of the past, sometimes has a fraught relationship with documentary. It’s too often used only to footnote some voiceover or establish a setting. But there’s a rich history of directors engaging with archival materials more actively. This year’s Independent Documentary Film Festival Amsterdam presented a survey of such examples with the program Re-Releasing History.

One common thread among the films in the strand is the biography. John Akomfrah’s The Stuart Hall Project (2013) sews the eponymous Jamaican intellectual’s television and radio appearances into a tapestry which explores his impact on culture in Britain, his upbringing, his love of Miles Davis, his thoughts on the postwar period, and colonialism’s effects on Jamaica. The film is both a valuable history lesson and a source of relevant commentary, especially with Hall’s analyses of Black diasporic identity in the UK.

From Marshawn Lynch: A History

David Shields’ Marshawn Lynch: A History (2019) takes a similar approach, presenting the football player’s tumultuous relationship the press and his participation in national anthem protests as necessary forms of resistance in a corporate-controlled industry that expects Black athletes to conduct themselves in a certain way. A quick collage of clips used under fair use license, the film feels almost Situationist in nature, which is perhaps the most fitting way to approach Lynch’s sometimes impenetrable persona.

Alina Marazzi’s For One More Hour with You (2002) questions the schemas under which a person can be caught on film. Investigating her mother’s suicide, Marazzi turns to her grandfather’s home movies. But the apparent warmth of those images is called into question when diary entries and psychiatric reports reveal that her mother’s depression arose from the pressure of his rigid patriarchal ideals. The film urges the viewer to consider issues around authorship and gender. (It’s  been praised by Laura Mulvey in her ongoing research on the compilation film.)

From The Atomic Cafe

Another major thread in the program is war, with The Atomic Café (1982) using compilation as a method of satire. Various educational and propagandist films made to reassure the American public about the necessity and safety of the country’s nuclear weapons policies crash against each other, contrasting their inconsistent claims. It pokes fun at the Atomic Age while demonstrating its horrors and recklessness. Lucas Gallo’s 1982 (2019) similarly demonstrates the manufacture of consent, with footage from the Argentinian news program 60 Minutos providing insight into the media campaign used to justify Argentina’s invasion of the Falkland Islands.

From State Funeral

Films using materials from the USSR also had a significant presence in the program. Sergei Loznitsa’s State Funeral (previously covered on Hyperallergic here) finds a kindred spirit in Maciej Drygas’s One Day in People’s Poland (2005), which pairs footage of the country in the early 1960s with readings of secret police notes, bringing Thursday, September 27, 1962 to life. (Drygas was set on choosing an entirely insignificant day to focus on.) The eventual dissolution of the USSR touches Andrei Ujica’s Out of the Present (1995) in an unusual way. Drawing from all kinds of tape and film footage, it starts as a portrait of cosmonaut Sergei Krikalev and his mission to the Mir space station. During the mission, the Soviet Union breaks up, but the cosmonaut is largely unfazed by this. This makes sense in light of what we see through Krikalev’s eyes. A camera he wore during a spacewalk provides a staggering POV shot, and one sequence features the camera clicking through different portions of the cloudy sky as if it’s a slide projector. With such a view, it’s easy to see how events on Earth would seem so insignificant.

From Out of the Present

Sometimes, small archival collections can be used to pluck smaller moments of history from the larger currents in which they can be lost. Private History (1978) pieces together fragments from Hungarian amateur filmmaking between 1920 and 1950, showing glimpses of daily life, softcore pornography, and the rise of Nazism, a freeform collage that inevitably gets tangled with World War II. The Danube Exodus (1998) collates the amateur films of Danube River Captain Andrasovits, who found himself shipping various communities displaced by the war in Central Europe. Supplemented with heavy narration and informative text, the film provides a lesson on Jews who fled Czechoslovakia for Palestine, as well as the double displacement of Bassarian Germans, due to the Stalin-Hitler pact and then the Soviet invasion of Poland.

The unifying element that’s compelling about archival footage is humanity – our willingness to relate to people of the past. The archive truly does its work when certain historical currents or broader sociopolitical concerns are bought to life at the same time. The films of “Re-Releasing History” demonstrate how directors can accentuate those currents.

The 2019 International Documentary Film Festival Amsterdam took place November 20 through December 1.

Andrew Northrop is a writer based in London, UK. He works in restoration and on film festivals and often writes about essay films, uses of archival footage, and coming of age/“slacker” narratives.