Archive cinema (lecture)


As filmmaker, I did several short movies, in-between different genres (documentary, animation and experimental). I make most of my movies by editing archive materials: photos, footages, sounds and musics… without new material released for those projects, without new images or voices-over made particularly for the films.

I won't talk to you during this lecture about my own work, but about "archive movies". I not the only filmmaker working as I do and there is already a long history of this kind of cinema. I prefer introduce there what is this "archive cinema" and show you masterpieces of this kind of cinema.

This lecture won't be about the different ways of using archives in films, but about films made exclusively with archives whatever if they are documentaries or fictions. I will try to explain during this lecture the links between such "archive movies", History, memories, representation and politics. We will see that "archive cinema" is a kind of cinema choose by some filmmakers when they want to make political movies and why almost of the "archives movies" could be defined as political.

De l'origine du XXIe siècle pour moi  / The Origin of the 21th Century, for me (2000) of Jean-Luc Godard is really a good introduction of what could be defined as an "archive movie". We can see clearly in this film, as it is one of the purposes of Godard in this work, that using archives allows the filmmaker to create links between History, memories, representation and finally politics or perhaps allows simply to make those links, previously unclear, appeared.

This film is also a good introduction of what is called an "archive". A visual archive could be defined as an image that was done before the filmmaking process whatever when it was done (50 years ago or two days ago) and whatever if this image was already screened, broadcasted, used, etc. or not. We could define more precisely like that: a visual archive is any image used by someone who is not the one who shoot or created this image. Or who did it years ago, as when Godard used an excerpt of A bout de souffle, his first movie.

In L'Origine du XXIe siècle, Godard used TV footages, documentary footages, excerpts of narrative films, even excerpts of other archives movies as the ones of Santiago Alvarez and Artavazd Pelechian, or still images as paintings. All those materials come from the beginning of the 20th century to the contemporary time of the filmmaking. Even the voices-over are made by cutting up preexisting texts from philosophers, writers and poets. It appeared clearly in this film that it is possible to mix together all those different kinds of materials and to use all of them to create a new and original story.

Godard shows us that archives don't have to be though according to their links with reality, they don’t have to be thought as documentary or narrative, but as "document". Documents and documentaries have not the same definition even if the words are closed. Documentaries are supposed to represent the real with a certain veracity, fiction films show fake reconstructions of fake realities. To think images as "documents" avoid opposing documentary and fiction. A document is not defined by its veracity, but simply by what it could say to us about the real. A document plays with metaphor. For example, when Godard wanted to talk about the end of the WW II, and the joy felt at this particular moment, he used a documentary footage of happy French people with an American flag and an excerpt of American fiction film with a couple of two lovers chatting in a boat. Both of those excerpts say metaphorically the same thing, even if those images are obviously very different one to the other.

To use archives as documents is a way to work poetically on the reality. The main idea when one filmmaker made such a movie is never to allow the audience to "discover" or "re-discover" images, but to make those images appeared as the filmmaker sees them, with all the doubts, the questions, the feelings he could have when he looks those images.  Such film are not about explanations or about answers, they are about questions.

Aby Warburg, who lived in Germany from 1866 to 1929, was not a filmmaker but an Art historian. He created what he called Iconography, the science of signs. This science tried to study images for themselves, inside themselves in a way. Images were thought independently of their production process and of their context of production (as: where they are produced? when? who did them? for whom?...) Every elements usually used to explain images were there not useful.

The main idea of this science was to create a visual history of human representations by linking images from different times and fields without textual explanations. Warburg believed in the possibility to explain what are the images by those images themselves.

At the end of its life, Warburg started a project that could be seen as the first try to edit visual archives. It was called by Warburg Mnemosyne Atlas. With this atlas, Aby Warburg tried to introduce a classification of images from the Quattrocento, as paintings, sculptures, mosaics, etc. Latter, he added to this corpus of images from the past, contemporary images as pictures, scientific drawings, pieces of newspapers, etc. He created different boards were all those images were classified by topics. Aby Warburg defined himself this work as "an history of ghosts for adults."

In this Atlas, images are not read for themselves as if they were presented alone. They are integrated in complex sequences without obvious reading ways. The images are not presented one after the other, but all together in the same presentation spaces. We can see that there are links between the images, but it can't help us to define more precisely what exactly links those images. In the board, the links are not straight, they run between the images as a labyrinth.

For Warburg, the idea was not to make those links between images the clearest he could, as it is possible to do so with a textual explanation. The idea was to express that something in the images, and moreover between them, can't be explain, particularly with vocabulary. Something in the images could never be translated.

Here a quotation of Aby Warburg himself: "History is precisely a missing space between two images. This missing space is a space for thinking, a space where past and present could be linked."

From Aby Warburg, we could define the archives movie filmmaking as an art that questions History by editing the images of this history itself, without information or explanations, without any narrator except the editor who collects and organizes the images and who creates between them dark or missing spaces.

Every archive movie is an essay of re-reading and questioning a moment of the human history by the editing of the images of this history, images picked up from their usual spaces of reading. Moreover those filmmakers give a new context to those images, and try to give them back their original quality, this silent thing in the images that can't be told. They purpose films as new constructions for and by those images edited with missing links. Those dark and unexpected spaces were purposed to the viewers as spaces of liberty, the liberty for them to think and to fill the missing links by their own thinking. There, in a time where medias try obviously to make the audience not to think, is the place for some radical and political art.

Le fond de l'air est rouge / Grin Without a Cat, a four hours movie made by Chris Marker made (in between 1977 and 2008) and Je vous salue Sarajevo / I salute Thee, Sarajevo, a two minutes movie from 1993 by Jean-Luc Godard Are two examples of films that show clearly that the editing is the main tool to build the narration and the meanings or more precisely to elaborate the questions. The Godard's film describes all the details of a single picture by a slow zoom-out from fragments to the entire picture. Chris Marker first shows us a very long footage that seems unedited, followed by a parallel editing of archives from the Vietnam war and the Spanish one, an editing that deals with similarities of the images of those two wars. In those films, the editing technics are simple, there are always one only movement: a fragmentary movement, an unedited archive and a parallel editing. There is a contradiction: in one hand the editing in those films appeared clearly but in the other hand this editing is quite simple, more simple than the usual editing used in TV or commercial cinema that is invisible even if it is more complicated.

The main idea with "archive cinema" is not only to show to the audience forgotten images from the past, it is also to done them to be seen again but differently, included in a showy visual process, an editing that appears as editing. "Archive movies" give themselves to the audience as films, as constructions, as representations... The fact that those movies don’t hide their artificiality has different kinds of consequences.

Introducing a movie as construction make appears clearly the archives themselves as constructions. The detailed picture used by Godard, the "unedited" sequence of the pilot of the plane or the footages of the Vietnamese and the Spanish wars... all those materials appeared in the two movies as constructions. They lost there their "supposed" neutrality of documentary images. Edited as they were, simple questions appeared about those images: Who took them? How? Why? When? Etc.

As every image is a discourse, as every image is created to say something, images aren't neutral. But as we are in a world overflowed by images, moreover as we are overflowed by a certain kind of images, we are used to them and we feel those visual flows as "natural". We forget to see images as constructions. We think quite easily that only the discourses on the images (as TV commentaries for example) are politically oriented. But as constructions based on a language, even if it is a visual language, images are not neutral and not natural. "Archives movies" give back clearly to the audience images as images buy full of their own qualities.

The second consequence of the fact that "archive movies" are done, as constructions is that all the other kinds of films appear, by opposition, as constructions. In mainstream medias, televisions and commercial cinema, the rule is that all those visuals flows must be felt by audience as natural and/so as neutral. Who rules the mainstream media? Private corporations or States. Why? Only each of us could answer to this question according to his own political point of view. Anyway, TV is the main ideological tool of our time. TV not only describes the reality, it creates a reality. The way we see, so the way we think, is built by mainstream media. All propaganda tools have to be invisible to be efficient, so TV has to be presented, moreover has to be felt, by the audience as neutral, what it shows has to be felt natural. So the editing as language has to be hide. If "archive movies" make their own editing visible, it is like an opposition to the supposed neutrality and neutrality of what is done to see by mainstream media.

In Empire (2005), Edouard Sallier questioned in this film what in under, what is hide in the images of the WASP American way-of-life. George Bush lie to the American citizens and to the world, in the name of the United States and for the honor of America, to justify an imperialist war on Iraq. Then, for Sallier, the deeper lies of America should be said. The American luxury as the American liberty is based on the slavery of a part of the humanity. The images of America, even when they seem neutral, are based on war and death. Even images of a couple running on a beach or of a little boy playing with toys could express the American imperialism and are constructed on the unconsciousness desire for death of this imperialism.

Since the creation of the photographic camera and moreover since the creation of the cinema, the History could be define as a visual history. Only what was represented in or by photographic or cinematographic, happened. Television ends to make History as exclusively a visual history.

So if one questions what our History tells (and what it hides), he can't do it without questioning how it was told. In the other hand, if one wants to question how our history was told, he can't do so without questioning was what told. When I said: "History is told" that means in the same time: "what is told in the official history" and "how it is told". How and what are there similar. How facts are or should be represented already includes a choice about what have to be said. And what have to be said already includes decisions about how to said it.

The ones who are the owners of the official enunciation, who have the power of the language, always tell history. The History is always told by the "winners", whatever their victories. As we are now in a visual history, the ones who rule the visual industries tell our history. The power of those ones became massive when televisions spread worldwide. Now, the mean existing reality is the fake one of TV. Moreover, if mainstream media, particularly TV, build our contemporary reality, they also rewrite endlessly our past, they change endlessly our memories. History is not something dead, eternal, it was not written once for ever. History is always rewritten according to the contemporary needs or points of view.

If we come back to "archive cinema", we could now easily see that as this cinema questions representation, questions visual languages, it questions how History is told, how it was told and what it tells and what it hides. They can't be "archive movie" outside History.

In La Rabbia by Pier Paolo Pasolini an in Blockade (2006) by Sergei Lostniza, we could clearly see that filmmakers, when they use archives, are more interested by the dark sides of the official History than by the official History itself. They questioned the stories without memories, the stories of the poorest, the stories of the losers, the stories of the dead. They question the stories of the ones outside History; they try to tell the untold stories, the untold History.

As each "archive movie" could be seen as a questioning, sometime a clear critic, of the usual, regular, but always ideological, way of telling and constructing the reality, each of those movies is a vain try to put some lights in the dark spaces outside or behind this built reality. Each of those movies is a vain fight for a positive memory. A vain but necessary try, a vain but necessary fight... for the ones who do not want that the disasters of the past and the contemporary disasters just continue to repeat endlessly. It is obvious that the past questioned by "archive movies" is not only the past, it is also our present, and our future. When Godard chooses to call is film About the Origin of the 21th Century even if he only shown the History of the 20th century, he only says this new century will only repeat the same patterns as the previous one. Except if we decide to change politically those patterns.

What is the false lacking of sounds in the excerpt of Blockade or the voice-over wrote by Pasolini for La Rabbia? They are basically poetical attempts to say the world, poetical attempts to say the past. The poetry is perhaps, and finally, the only way that those filmmakers, and others, have found to honor the memory of the ones without memory, the ones outside History. And it is perhaps the only way they find to create a possibility for the future to be shaped differently, to be shaped more human. Moreover, and not meaningless, poetry is a way of expression that mainstream media can't integrated, and so, can't destroy.


Jean-Gabriel Périot
Jakarta University, 2011