Skip to main content

Fast Foreword: The Editor's Column, Spring 2013

By Tom White

Dear Readers,

Over the past 15 years, as part of the IDA Documentary Awards, ABC News VideoSource and IDA have teamed up to honor a film that makes the best use of archival footage as an integral component in nonfiction storytelling. Such works as Regret to Inform, George Wallace: Settin' the Woods on Fire, Bus 174, Imelda and Jonestown: The Life and Death of Peoples Temple have earned this honor for the innovative means by which their respective filmmakers have recast the past into a rich, full-bodied narrative.

Whether we are engaging an event that's fresh in our collective memory, or revisiting an era that precedes us, the documentation of that moment in time-what it reveals, where it takes us-reconfigures our sense of history, memory and time, and underscores our struggle to reconcile all three. What's more, the recontextualization of footage from past to present can, in the right hands, compel us to rethink where we are as a culture. Consider the 2011 film The Black Power Mixtape 1967-1975 by Goran Hugo Olsson, who transformed a trove of forgotten footage shot by Swedish journalists of some of the prime movers of the Black Power movement in America into an impeccably edited reassessment of activism, democracy and social change.

So in these pages-and also in the next issue-we take a look at certain aspects of archival footage and its role in documentary filmmaking. Lauren Cardillo talks to some of the masters of the history documentary genre-Ken Burns, David Grubin, Stanley Nelson, Paul Stekler-about what they look for and how they use it in bringing the past to life. Oftentimes, documentary makers need to look beyond their home country to find the treasures that make their work complete. Laura Almo sits down with Robin Hessman (My Perestroika), Duane Baughman (Bhutto) and Malik Bendjelloul (Searching for Sugar Man), who share the challenges they faced in tracking down both state-sponsored media and personal archives.

Searching for and acquiring archival footage is a rigorous and inspiring part of the documentary practice, and of course, with every phase in the process, there are legal considerations to consider and heed. Kenn Rabin, the well-regarded consultant, archivist and author, with Sheila Curran Bernard, of Archival Storytelling: A Filmmaker's Guide to Finding, Using and Licensing Third-Party Visuals and Music, offers a précis of tips on being savvy about rights clearance issues.

Looking ahead to the next issue of Documentary, which will focus, in part, on the dramatically changing television and cable landscape, we will continue on this archival safari, surveying the major footage houses, such as the aforementioned ABC News VideoSource, NBC News Archives and T3 Media, as well as some of the smaller boutique footage emporia such as Oddball Film & Video and A/V Geeks.

Yours in actuality,

Thomas White