September 18, 2011

Archive Verite : Editing as an Art Form

<em>The Black Power Mixtape 1967-1975 </em>premieres through Sundance Selects and will air on PBS' Independent Lens

What do Ken Kesey, Martin Luther King, Jr. and the late Formula One racecar driver Ayrton Senna have in common? Some of you might be thinking, "King organized a bus boycott, and Kesey drove a painted bus full of psychedelic experimenters across the country. So, maybe it's wheeled transportation that would bring in Senna."

Well, what ties them together is that they are all featured in three recent nonfiction features that seamlessly use archive footage as if it were the raw material from a vérité documentary.

 "We call it archival vérité," says Alison Ellwood, who edited and co-directed (with Alex Gibney) Magic Trip, which chronicles Kesey and the Merry Prankster's acid-fueled trip across the US in 1964. The film was released in August through Magnolia Pictures and will air on HISTORY in 2012.

Ellwood and Gibney were sitting at the Sundance Festival reading a New Yorker article about Kesey's odyssey; the article mentioned a trove of 40 hours of 16mm footage of the Pranksters that Kesey had stored in his barn. "When we got back from Sundance, we contacted the family," Ellwood recalls. The filmmakers learned that there were actually about 100 hours of film and several hours of audiotapes. Unfortunately, the footage was shot by a bunch of very stoned and tripped-out amateurs.

Moreover, the Pranksters had repeatedly tried over the years to edit the footage, but instead of making work prints to create the numerous cuts, they used the original reversal film. Then they projected these cut versions over and over again for their amusement. This celluloid abuse tore sprockets and scratched the film and didn't result in a coherent, finished epic. Kesey eventually gave up trying to edit the footage, and he packed it away in his barn, where its damaged fragments began to decay.

Ellwood and Gibney were initially disheartened--until the UCLA Film and Television Archive received a grant from the Film Foundation to restore what is now dubbed the Ken Kesey Merry Prankster Collection. Audio was another story. HISTORY Films stepped in with some support, and Don Fleming from the Alan Lomax Archive set about working his digital magic on the hours of wobbly, scratchy sound captured on a Nagra, as well as numerous interviews recorded while the participants were watching various rough cuts of the film-which would serve as a running commentary for Magic Trip

Ellwood explains that she and Gibney had originally planned to re-interview the surviving Pranksters, "But we found that the earlier interviews were fresher." The filmmakers did shoot one interview and cut it into the film, but "It took you out of it."

They decided to go with the off-camera commentary approach and create a seamless narrative feel. Three of the archival interviews defied Fleming's skilled approach, however; test audiences couldn't hear the dialogue. As a solution, the filmmakers hired actors to perform the transcripts of the interviews, as well as a few re-creations of key scenes that the Pranksters had missed filming, but later recollected in the interviews. In addition, actor Stanley Tucci plays an unseen narrator/interviewer. These conceits, as well as animated maps and the use of a few newsreels for context, enhance the overall approach to constructing Magic Trip.

The six-year process has brought back to life a moment in American history that Ellwood thinks is important. It was a time during the Cold War when Americans were afraid of nuclear annihilation, and the country was shrouded in a "darkness of fear. Kesey was trying to tell people to get out of the bunkers, and don't listen the fear mongers," she maintains, and sees parallels between that all-encompassing fear of a nuclear Armageddon and the hysteria that gripped post-9/11 America. Her hope is that after seeing Magic Trip, "People walk away with a sense of adventure." 

A similar motivation to revive interest and re-interpret seminal events in American culture prompted Swedish filmmaker Göran Olsson to create his film about the Black Power movement in the United States. The Black Power Mixtape 1967-1975, which premieres September 9 through Sundance Selects and will air on PBS' Independent Lens, is largely comprised of footage shot by various Swedish television crews during that era and stored in the network's basement.

 "I'd heard rumors among documentary filmmakers for 20 years about this footage," says Olsson. "When I found it, it was obvious to me that you could create a very interesting film." Resurrecting this cold case file of archive footage and making a film "was my duty."

The original productions aired on Swedish television and were very popular because, according to Olsson, "There was a connection between Sweden and the Civil Rights movement, especially after Dr. King won the Nobel Peace Prize." We see that King and the Black Power movement were being vilified by FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover in the US as Communist-inspired threats to the United States, and Hoover singles out the Black Panthers' school breakfast program as proof. Olsson wanted to show audiences "the effort the FBI put into harassing these people." 

The creators of the original documentaries gained unprecedented access to the Black Panthers and others because they were trusted as sympathetic. Most American producers at that time wouldn't have driven into Oakland neighborhoods, let alone knocked on Panther leaders' doors. But the Swedish journalists did, saying, "We're from Sweden and we're wondering if we could talk to you."

The producers earned their trust, and consequently some of the prime movers of the Black Power movement--Stokely Carmichael, Angela Davis, Eldridge Cleaver, Huey Newton and Bobby Seale--discuss activism, democracy, social change and civil rights with a candor and openness largely unseen in their engagements with the American media. And there are intimate moments as well, such as Carmichael at home with his mother as she expresses her concern for her son's safety.

Finding the footage and turning it into a new project didn't present the same technical challenges for Olsson as it did for Ellwood and Gibney. The original films were shot by talented documentary crews and were well preserved. The Swedes had used reversal film stock, but had also made a dupe negative and work print, so the camera masters had never been cut or projected. They were pristine. The transfer to high-definition video, using modern color correction, actually made them "look better today," says Olsson.

The biggest dilemma was whether to intersperse the historical footage with contemporary interviews or let the scenes play out. Inspired by DA Pennebaker's commentary tracks on his DVDs, Olsson decided to "keep the audience in the room" and not cut away to interviews. Instead the interviews he recorded with contemporary authors, professors and hip-hop artists such as Erykah Badu and Talib Kweli play out as a sound bed without interrupting the images. These new sound bites are mixed with existing "audio commentary" from Harry Belafonte, Bobby Seale and Angela Davis. The Black Power Mixtape 1967-1975 earned the World Cinema Documentary Editing Award for Olsson and Hanna Lejongvist.

This vérité approach to creating something new from found footage was the solution that British filmmaker Asif Kapadia opted for as he grappled with how to transform 5,000 hours of archive footage into a compelling film about three-time world champion Formula One driver Ayrton Senna.

The producers of Senna thought their project would take a traditional route--archive footage, plus fresh interviews, some re-creations and location shoots blended together to create something new. But as Kapadia began slogging through the hours and hours of material, he realized, "This is a movie." 

Each race was covered by numerous cameras, including cameras mounted on board the cars. The pre-race meetings were covered by crews that the drivers trusted, so the crews captured some very candid and tense moments; and since Senna was a hero in both his native Brazil and Formula One-crazy Japan, TV outlets from those countries had covered him exhaustively. Adding in home movies, other news footage and some amateur videos, Kapadia figured that Senna's life and career was "all on camera."

The filmmaker worried that breaking away from this amazing cache of footage with on-camera interviews and other bits would break the spell over an audience that a movie can create. His background in theater enabled him to engage the material as a drama and the raw video as coverage.

 "No interviews, no stills--we had to dramatically make the points," Kapadia explains. He did conduct interviews with people who actually covered the races and knew Senna. These form a running audio narrative in much the same way that Ellwood, Gibney and Olsson render their interviews. Unlike in the Magic Trip, though, Senna doesn't employ a narrator. 

Doing something out of the ordinary is usually a hard sell to an executive producer who's happy to see a project delivered in a conventional format. Kapadia was relentless, and after repeated showings of renditions of the film using his approach, he won over the producers who saw his vision of "cinema."

The resulting 104-minute film won the World Cinema Documentary Audience Award at the 2011 Sundance Film Festival band had grossed over $8 million at the box office worldwide at press time.  

Not every subject is ideally suited for an "archival vérité" film, but if you stumble on a project with a vast amount of footage and compelling central characters--and you're supported by forward-thinking producers--you may want to let the footage tell the story.

 

Michael Rose is a Los Angeles-based writer, producer and director.

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