Stock Footage on the Brain

I was excited to learn that the Full Frame Documentary Film Festival will be working with Rick Prelinger from the Prelinger Archives for this year’s Thematic Program – all things archival. Started in the early 1980’s, the Prelinger Archives is a collection of historically significant media that “haven’t been collected elsewhere” – like old advertisements, corporate videos and the like. The bulk of the collection was acquired by the Library of Congress in 2002, but the PA still collects work that it makes available to artists and researchers. Rick Prelinger is also a filmmaker in his own right, creating work from the ephemera in his own collection.

There was a time in my life when just the words archival footage would lull me to sleep, or, even worse, bring me back to my high school Social Studies classes where we would watch historic docs by the handful (I remember that projector more than my actual teacher). While the footage was useful in evoking the feeling of a certain time, the way it was used often fell flat and, in many ways, this practice is what earned documentaries their reputation for being dull.

But then the clouds parted and I was introduced to the work of Craig Baldwin and my relationship with archival footage was never the same. I feel in love with it and saw it for the creative goldmine that it could be. Now some of my very favorite docs are made entirely from the archive footage like Leon Gast’s WHEN WE WERE KINGS or Jonathan Caouette’s video diary film TARNATION.

Most recently, I screened Steven Soderbergh’s AND EVERYTHING IS GOING FINE and MUST READ AFTER MY DEATH by Morgan Dews and recommend both for your “must see” lists. For fans of Spalding Gray, Soderbergh crafts what plays as an entirely new monologue from a collection of Gray’s performances and interviews. His triumph is his ability to pay tribute to Gray by capturing the spirit of Gray’s life and work through this thoughtful doc. Dews film juxtaposes the happy moments of “normal life” as captured in the home movies of his grandparents and their children with the more intimate, subversive and scary moments they recorded by audio tape. Dews’ grandparents recorded letters detailing their unorthodox relationship to one another by Dictaphone, and even recorded their arguments when home together with their children. Through this use of the archival, the filmmaker pulls back the curtain on a seemingly typical suburban family and reveals the complexities and tragedies that lurk underneath.

LEF Grantee Jane Gillooly is also experimenting with the archival. Her current film in production is THE SUITCASE OF LOVE AND SHAME. Jane purchased a suitcase off eBay containing audiotapes that chronicle the affair of two Midwesterners through their recorded letters to each other in the 1960’s. The tapes are incredibly intimate; there is something about the recorded voice that evokes a whispered secret. Somehow, the lack of image is what enables them to make themselves vulnerable. Listening to their letters, you travel through space and time and land right in the moment with these two fascinating characters. We are excited to see how this project develops!

– Sara

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