Any and all archives, by the fact of their very existence pose a range of intricate questions which this humble collection cannot presume to tackle in an appropriately comprehensive manner. At the time of writing these words, the Jerusalem Cinematheque is ploughing on, full steam ahead, with its task of collecting, preserving, cataloguing, and making upwards of 66,000 films globally accessible online. That is a staggering number of films, carefully and meticulously compiled with the utmost care over decades. Copies of all films are saved in just about every known format including positives, negatives, 35mm, 16mm, 8mm, and of course video in its many formats. The collection is kept in locked, air-conditioned, and secured basements, under conditions that keep it safe from any potential harm. There, it lies in wait for filmmakers and scholars to take that crucial step, unlock the cave door, set their eyes on this treasure, and take it that much further.
I first began working with archival footage in my 2007 film, Children of the Sun. Whilst we were in production on the film, I found myself going back and forth between dozens of archives, both small and large, where I collected dozens of hours’ worth of amateur footage from multiple sources. Much to my surprise, I discovered that I rather liked archives; the smell of them, and that sense of anticipation that perhaps the next reel might hold a hidden treasure waiting to be discovered. One that has been buried for decades, biding its time for the likes of me to finally turn up. I enjoyed the long journeys to and fro, and the many conversations struck up with the archivists who are sitting there, waiting for the odd visitor to walk through the doors, trawl through the archives, and give meaning to what they do which, for all intents and purposes, is utterly fascinating work that is scarcely known, or even visible.
Running an archive and making films based on archival footage both present a slew of dilemmas to do with preserving, cataloguing, content accessibility, and so on. Each dilemma, of course, comes with its own fascinating set of financial, political, and professional aspects. In this list, I aim to focus primarily on films that don’t so much deal directly with the archive’s functions but rather make creative, and aesthetic use of old films and imagery to create a different kind of filmmaking, based on archival footage; a type of cinema that seeks to undermine the source and flesh out an additional narrative from all the old footage.
What does it mean to take footage shot by certain individuals, at a particular time, and with specific intentions – and to then use it in another film, in a totally different period, and with altogether different motivations? How does documentary filmmaking breathe new meaning into old imagery? How do we, as directors, grapple with our ability to alter the meaning of an image and through it, tell another story; one that exceeds / contradicts / expands on the original cinematographer’s vision? What are the dangers and equally, the opportunities that emerge in film’s ability to place a ‘second hand image’ in a different context that could transform, refresh, and reinvigorate the old footage (if all goes well) or alternatively, take it out of context and create untruthful connections and associations (a less favourable scenario, to say the least.)
Countless directors, to date, have delved into archives and worked with archival footage. The majority of films will likely use footage from the past in a casual, offhand manner – a way of illustrating “the real thing”, if you will. Seldom will they approach the image as a living, breathing entity that must be observed at length, dusted off, and roused awake to a new lease of life. In the wonderfully described words of Roland Barthes’s Camera Lucida: Reflection on Photography, “the photograph, itself, is not ‘alive’ at all (I do not believe in ‘living’ images), but it is enough to breathe life into me – which inspires all adventure.”)
Georges Didi-Huberman who grappled, at length, with a range of ethical questions that arise when using archival images, wrote in his momentous book, Images in Spite of All, “To imagine, in spite of it all, [is] something that warrants strict ethics of the image on our part: neither the invisible par excellence (the aesthetician’s laziness), nor an icon of the horror (the believer’s laziness), nor the simple document (the scientist’s laziness). A simple image: unsatisfactory yet essential. Inaccurate yet authentic. Authentic; in spite of its truth, too, being paradoxical, of course. I would say that the image here is the eye of history: its unwavering mission to turn things visible.”
I have chosen a number of local films that have made creative use of archival footage. Those that take on the invisible, the horror, and the simple document: Haim Gouri, Jacques Ehrlich, and David Bergman’s trilogy The 81st Blow (1974), The Last Sea (1979), and Flames in the Ashes (1985); A Film Unfinished (Yael Hersonski, 2010); The Women Pioneers (Michal Aviad, 2013); Censored Voices (Mor Loushy, 2015); Ben-Gurion, Epilogue (Yariv Mozer and Yael Perlov, 2016); Death in the Terminal (Tali Shemesh and Asaf Sudri, 2016); The Death of Cinema and my Father Too (Dani Rosenberg, 2020); Belated Measures (Nir Evron, 2020), and my own Children of The Sun (2007). Each of these films tackles archival footage from a different aesthetic approach whilst employing a fair bit of movie manipulation – all of which comes together to deliver a truly fascinating end result.
The translation subtitles were produced thanks to the generous donation of the Azrieli Foundation.