The rise of the ‘total archive’ documentary film is not so much a new concept, but rather an approach which has expanded and become hugely popular in recent years. The idea, of making a film composed to 100% of historical footage is an idea which on paper might appear a stretch too far for most audiences, but which thanks to Asif Kapadia’s box-office shattering successes Senna and Amy, appears to be anything but the case. Five-year old paparazzi footage of Amy Winehouse might not intrinsically feel like ‘archive’, but it still is such, and presenting this with heard-but-not-seen talking head voice-overs is surprisingly effective at mapping a narrative over this string of visuals. On more than one occasion I’ve had to insist there is not a single second of modern day footage in Senna, despite the pleadings of friends absolutely convinced that an overweight and aging Nigel Mansell ‘surely’ pops up on screen to discuss his memories of the Brazilian driver. Mansell’s voice is there, in archive itself, and in recollecting voice-over, but never in a cut to 21st century profile of the man. The same is true in Amy, and the effect is no doubt similar in being both effective without being disruptive. The story is told, biases and all, without visual interjection from the world of ‘today’.
Archive footage in and of itself holds an intrinsic value, a compelling draw as a window into the past, and the proliferation of endless hours of archive on both Youtube and on curated channels like the BFIplayer, means this material is more readily available than ever before. Yet outside the niches of specialised interest, its hard to maintain the draw of this material from one clip to the next. Idling about online I could easily kill half an hour browsing Youtube videos on Ayrton Senna, but skimming along on algorithmic suggestions and with next to no context or connection, this archive rabbit-hole wouldn’t run very deep. The curatorial eye of the director and the narrative woven through voice-over is all the more powerful then in Senna, employing a familiar yet distinct documentary adhesive to bind the narrative together. Strike into a particular theme or subject from the archive however, one which does not offer an inherent narrative, and the challenge of making the material cohere is much more difficult. The natural temptation might be to import a narrative line from a biography of tract on a given period of time, but by doing so we immediately place the narrative before the material. The story is broadly speaking pre-established, but variegated by whatever archival material the researchers can lay their hands on. The more compelling documentary would however be the film which approaches the historic footage as primary material and not secondary; one where the narrative is drawn out of the sum of the material, and which does not set out to use the material for illustrative purposes. That still requires the curatorial eye of the director, editor and researcher working in tandem, but it does lack an obvious adhesive to draw the material together.
A brilliant recent example then is to be found in the new ‘total archive’ documentary Show of Shows, compiled by Icelandic director Benedikt Erlingsson and built on material from, and in collaboration with the National Fairground Archive in Sheffield. Over seventy three tight minutes of archive footage, the film pushes through a visual overview of the circus, the fairground, the variety theatre, and performed entertainments more generally, as captured on screen in the first sixty years of motion pictures. With discreet chapters on various types of performer, from acrobats to musicians, from animals to human physical wonders, each segment loses itself in the singular performance found in the theme, skipping from clip to clip in a breathless notion of almost free association. From jumping unicyclists, to spinning trick bicyclists, to a full grown bear spinning around on a bike in central Berlin, the connections are vivid and unexpected, giving the viewer enough time to get lost in the detail of the film before suddenly switching to something similar which is still radically different. It quickens the heart, while barely giving you a chance to blink for want of not missing some unique peculiarity. This free-falling free association is not tied together with expert voice-over, and scant context is offered beyond the thematic groupings of the films. What does brilliantly tie together this material is the original score from the Icelandic band Sigur Ros, whose distinctive soundscapes give texture and pace to the footage onscreen.
My own personal connection to some of the footage is also strong, as having completed my doctorate from a base in the National Fairground Archive I was lucky enough to know a lot of the material as it is seen in Show of Shows. Countless times my supervisor, the director of the archive, would call me across to see some new clip or another that had been gifted to the archive.
“Do you recognise what country that might be in. What bombed out city is this?”
“Is that a man in drag, or not?”
or perhaps most peculiar of all “can you tell if it’s a dog or a monkey in that dress?”
To encounter these films in isolation, and stripped of context was in the first instance a challenge of research and investigation. It was also consistently a moment of humour and excitement, but all too often a fleeting and fragmentary moment at that. Moment we would witness in silence of course.
Show of Shows is brilliant then for stitching together theses fragments into a vivid and stirring document in its own right. The narrative, if it can be described as such, is the rush of history, and the changing face of those we see in it. The wonderful score from Sigur Ros drives this all forward, and strengthens the association and totality of this collated material. Some of the footage is shocking to modern eyes, from performers falling a-foul of gravity in excruciating fashion, or the sight of animals taking the brunt of humanity’s cruelty, the shock is underscored by how recognisable yet simultaneously distant it feels. There is no cut-away to the talking head of an academic or expert condoning or contextualising this material. No punches are pulled, no excuses are made. The shock is short and sharp, but fleeting, affording no time for the viewer to dwell on the suffering. The music builds and the film comes to a crashing end, and the result left me genuinely breathless in a way you rarely expect a documentary to do. Perhaps I am too close to the material to not get caught up in it. But that doesn’t lessen the effect of the film itself, and convince me further of the potential and the impact of actual ‘total archive’ documentaries.
The Show of Shows has a one-off screening at The Cube Microplex this Thursday the 10th of December, at 8pm.