TRANS Internet-Zeitschrift für Kulturwissenschaften 17. Nr. März 2010

Sektion 7.11. Dokumentarfilme und -ausstellungen als kreatives Handwerk des Wissens
Sektionsleiterin | Section Chair: Antoaneta Tcholakova (Wien)

Dokumentation | Documentation | Documentation

Building the Past: Archival Footage
in Documentary and Fictional Film

Oksana Sarkisova (Russland - OSA Archivum, Hungary)


The authenticity of non-fiction is often taken for granted due to a firm belief in the photographic nature of the image and the mimetic resemblance of the depicted objects and figures. Up to the present day, archival footage remains one of the most conventional, convenient, and convincing ways of supporting historical accounts. I will concentrate on Russian and Hungarian examples to illustrate the two most frequent strategies employed in ascribing meaning to archival footage. One treats film as a weapon while the other sees it as an (un)partial witness. Both train the eye of the beholder to take different stances as they view film narratives.


Cine-Weapon: Made to Conquer

The treatment of the image as a weapon can be used both for glorifying one’s cause and for denouncing or compromising that of the other. This approach is based on a straightforward judgment and reduces the world to a binary opposition of “evil” and “good.” Visual evidence, however, does not necessarily concentrate on revealing unknown or shocking scenes. Often the usage of the most banal imagery, moreover, sometimes made for self-representation, serves as the means for a powerful indictment. Among the early uses of film as weapon one indeed thinks of early Soviet cinema. Esfir’ Shub’s montage film The Fall of the Romanov Dynasty (Падение династии Романовых, 1927) is a compilation of newsreels and “found footage.” The move from monarchy to socialist state appears here linear, teleological, and reassuring. The film became an important conceptual watermark in film history: what had been considered anonymous editing work started to be perceived as authorial directing. The past is evaluated from the position of the new power, and denounced as unjust and doomed to disappear. Such judgment is passed by contrasting dancing aristocrats and working peasants through editing and repeated intertitles – “Until they broke a sweat” (do pota).

The genre of montage films survived, and after WWII the same method was applied to condemn the Nazi regime. Mikhail Romm’s Ordinary Fascism (Обыкновенный фашизм, 1965) is a compilation of archival material, including numerous propaganda films of the Nazi regime itself. The position of the author is presented both in the editing sequences and the off-screen commentary. Romm contrasts visual and textual material as a structural counterpoint. Contrary to the atrocity films, Ordinary Fascism does not include shocking imagery but concentrates on the everyday experiences of “simple people,” seduced by the rhetoric of strong leadership and communal unity.

On many occasions the relationship of footage and reality becomes blurred. A somewhat paradoxical use of footage is found in a duly forgotten Soviet propaganda film entitled Cobweb (Паутина, 1973), which aims at uncovering a network of anti-Soviet propaganda in the West. The “West” features in the film as a space of corruption, where media is blamed for being biased and politicians as being vicious. As “proof,” the film includes a fragment from a press conference of the newly established “German Sex Party” (introduced as deutsche Sex-Partei, or DSP), which announces the liberalization of sexual relationships as its main agenda. The printed brochures and leaflets carrying the name and the logo of the DSP are shown and the off-screen narrator comments on the rotten mores of the West. Scenes of street protests against Axel Springer’s media empire follow. Everything is done to convince the bewildered viewer of the newsreel-status of the quoted material. The audience’s surprise would no doubt be quite great if it knew that what looked like a newsreel was in fact a fragment from a West German comedy Hurra… Die deutsche Sex-Partei (Hans Bornhauser, 1973). The sequence’s aim is to confuse the audience, ascribing archival footage status to fiction.

The collapse of the Soviet Union did not put an end to the straightforwardly ideological use of archival footage, but gave it a new spin, which is witnessed by another montage film – The Russia that we lost (Россия, которую мы потеряли, Stanislav Govorukhin, 1992). It seeks to rehabilitate what was previously demonized and condemn the previously hailed. Searching for a “lost” Russia, Govorukhin creates an eulogizing image of the vanished world of the tsarist empire. The method used is similar to that of Shub and Romm, and the commentary is unmistakingly pejorative towards the Bolshevik regime. A longing for a golden age in history is masked by the emphasis on the reconstruction of historical truth.

In contrast to the above-mentioned straightforward ideological statements, montage films are also capable of presenting sophisticated criticism, of which Sándor Sára’s Pro Patria (1969) is a fine example. The film is a collage of similar celebrations from different countries on the occasions of opening monuments to national heroes and military parades from WWI. National feasts are contrasted with episodes of unembellished murder at the front and the forgotten corpses on the battlefields. Here the material which is originally intended to enthuse the audience with feelings of patriotic pride and sacrifice is subverted and invested with a contrary meaning, putting forward the idea of the tragedy of individual death, unmatched by any pathetic speeches and celebrations. Sára’s film uses a sophisticated soundtrack, merging patriotic songs, mass cheers, drumming and brass tunes of military orchestra with mechanical noises. The footage thus becomes a powerful condemnation of the militant zeal of the masses, challenging the conventional understanding of patriotism and national pride.


Cine-Witnesses: Made to Ponder

In the 1960s montage film experienced a new revival. Representations of the past expanded from the portrayal of prominent figures and grand occasions to include quotidian societal practices, often contrasting public and private within one narrative. Simultaneous use of film as “weapon” and “witness” appears in the already mentioned Ordinary Fascism. Romm reconstructed a contemporary “frog view,” seeking to understand how passive non-interventionist positions lent support and legitimation to Nazism.

Seeking not only to condemn and punish, but to elucidate and reveal, most of the films that use archival footage as a witness of a particular period avoid linear narrative structure. In the 1970s, Gábor Bódy and Péter Timár experimented with amateur film by creating a pastiche of family experiences entitled Private History (Privát Történelem, 1978). Private family experiences are inserted into the context of broader social changes, entering film narrative in the form of political speeches on radio and in public, newsreels, posters, and official announcements. Through the use of split screens and freeze-frames film’s temporal structure becomes multi-dimensional, accommodating “big history” along with the banalities of everyday life. Reflecting the simultaneity of the experiences, the soundtrack fuses political speeches, radio transmissions, and musical hits of the time. Yet the first impression of universal and repetitive everyday life is misleading, as the converging experiences of the middle class in the 1930s become increasingly divergent, culminating with the Holocaust deportations.

Using footage as a compendium of life experiences inspired a search for new perspectives. Paradigmatic in this respect is a work by Vitalii Manskii, Monologue: Private Chronicles (Монолог: Частные хроники, 1999). The director assembles personal, individual and utterly private stories from family archives of countless anonymous contributors to synthesize a generic story of a collective Soviet self. Speaking on behalf of the last Soviet generation, an off-screen narrator presents the life-story of a “simple Soviet man,” born on April 11, 1961, just a day before Yuri Gagarin’s famous spaceflight. The mosaic reconstruction of a male variant of Soviet Bildungsroman seeks to embrace the most generic generational experiences, as well as to present the history of private ups and downs behind the monochrome Soviet façade. The commentator at once keeps an ironic distance from the narrative as well as deeply internalizes it. The rehabilitated past, thus, is devoid of any extremes, rather appealing to recognizable experiences, while the narrator emerges as a contemporary and a historical figure at once. Thus, his commentary on pioneer life and Soviet holidays combine the complicity of a participant with the deconstructive view of an outsider. Albeit the author drowns his alter-ego at the onset of perestroika, it was exactly his generation that later partook in remolding the image of the Soviet history, ascribing to it a nostalgic glaze. A different path is taken by a Hungarian filmmaker and media artist Péter Forgács. Further developing ideas of Bódy, Forgács’s series Private Hungary (Privát történelem) avoids using a single linear historical narrative, emphasizing the multiplicity of viewpoints as well as a discrepancy of “big” versus “private” histories.(1) While individuals in his films often appear to be trapped – by their status, experiences, opinions, and expectations – the viewer is left to judge for his or herself on the complexities of history and fragmented memories. The director seeks to provoke his audience by telling the same story from various viewpoints. Such treatment of the material does not imply, however, the principle of non-intervention. On the contrary, the filmmaker works closely with the image, using slow motion and still images, multiple exposure, as well as split-screens to represent parallel actions. Most of the stories happen with the greatest calamities of the 20th century in the background, yet are never fully reduced to the “official history.” Forgács’s films further preserve and estrange the personal nature of the home footage with the help of Tibor Szemző’s meditative and minimalist soundtrack.

These were but a few examples on possible ways of working with archival footage. It would be wrong, however, to see the metaphors of “weapon” and “witness” as a progression from one way of working with the footage to the other. Rather, both (co)exist and often the fusion of the two can be found in current films, which are made all the more reflexively and thus put the audience to test daily.



Until now, the series includes 14 independent films: The Bartos Family. Private Hungary 1 1988; Dusi & Jenõ. Private Hungary 2 1989; Either – Or. Private Hungary 3, 1989; The Diary of Mr. N. Private Hungary 4, 1990; D-FILM Private Hungary 5, 1991; Photographed by László Dudás. Private Hungary 6, 1991; Bourgeoisie Dictionary. Private Hungary 7, 1992; The Notes of a Lady. Private Hungary 8, 1994; The Land of Nothing. Private Hungary 9, 1996; Free Fall. Private Hungary 10, 1996; Class Lot. Private Hungary 11, 1997; Kádár’s Kiss. Private Hungary 12, 1997; A Bibó Reader. Private Hungary 13, 2001; The Bishop’s Garden. Private Hungary 14, 2002.

7.11. Dokumentarfilme und -ausstellungen als kreatives Handwerk des Wissens

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Oksana Sarkisova: Building the Past: Archival Footage in Documentary and Fictional Film - In: TRANS. Internet-Zeitschrift für Kulturwissenschaften. No. 17/2008. WWW:

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