Archive and Memory at IFFR 2020

Archive and Memory at IFFR 2020

At a time when archival film and other forms of archive are increasingly present in programming thanks to modern workflows, it feels apt to look to one of the largest arthouse festivals. Across its various strands, this year’s International Film Festival Rotterdam included a selection of filmmakers using these documents to grapple with the past, analyze personal events, discuss collective memory, or share hidden pockets of film history. Across both fiction and documentary — or sometimes a combination of the two — the examples below employ different tactics, ranging from the familiar to the bold.

Activating Found Footage

Still from “My Mexican Bretzel” (Nuria Giménez)

With My Mexican Bretzel — winner of the festival’s “Found Footage Award” — Nuria Giménez molds a couple’s holiday movies into an exacting interrogation of how found-footage films can maneuver fact and fiction. The clips are guided by the diary entries of Vivian Barrett concerning her husband — a retired fighter pilot selling a globally successful anti-depressant. It’s a film that intentionally pulls the wool over your eyes, but the layers of manipulation shouldn’t be spoiled for the sake of this article. What is safe to say is that Giménez’s exploration is extremely nuanced and formally aware. What would have been Vivian’s voiceover just appears as subtitles without audio, and Giménez largely refrains from adding diegetic sound, interrogating the viewers’ reliance on them. Sound effects feel exacting and emotionally driven when they do appear, with the film’s opening sequence ruptured by a loud plane crash that sends the film’s body into a state of collapse, spewing dirty film leaders at the viewer. As Vivian expresses her most troubled thoughts about the relationship and her brief affair, pulsating soundscapes rise and fall in volume and intensity, and her frequent quoting of a lifestyle guru often sits in the silence that follows. Though My Mexican Bretzel is steeped in a familiar mode of found-footage filmmaking, Giménez never takes the form for granted and consistently agitates its elements.

Still from “Exile Diaries” (Irene Gutiérrez)

Irene Gutiérrez also interrogates viewer expectations around home movies in Diarios del exilio (Exile Diaries). Though often appearing benign and familiar, the footage originates from people who fled Spain following the Spanish Civil War. There’s a collective uniformity to the home movies that Gutiérrez employs — they fit the familiar mode of personal documentation and touristic impulse — but the film seeks to traverse the undercurrent of displacement that lingers below their surface. This is largely enacted by the movies being sparsely accompanied by haunting scores and audio recordings from Spain’s political history. It feels as though the images and the audio are sitting on different tectonic plates, shifting in and out of proximity to each other, close enough to unify under the same project yet causing destruction if they do. That lingering sense of discomfort is exactly what makes this such a memorable activation of found footage.

Every film of this kind, however, needn’t employ the risks that My Mexican Bretzel and Exile Diaries take, and Martin Deyres’ Les heures heureuses (Our Lucky Hours) is one of those found-footage documentaries that champions its subject matter with confidence despite playing it safe with its structure. Archival film from the basement of the Saint-Alban psychiatric hospital in the Lozère region of France, as well as other photographs and documents, backs up a well-balanced combination of audio testimonies and a judicious voiceover. Known for championing the practice of “ergotherapy” and giving patients a large degree of freedom and expression, the ward’s history includes refugees and city patients during World War II, and later finds itself crossing paths with figures such as Auguste Forestier and Frantz Fanon. Deyres’ film avoids over-sensationalism by embracing how telling the footage itself is rather than weighing it down with too much observation. As a result, the smiling and active patients form the true emotional backbone of the film.

Adjacent Ephemera

Press image from “The Makavejev Case or Trial in a Movie Theater” (Goran Radovanović)

Sometimes, additional documents are required to understand the broader socio-political currents that envelop certain films or directors. In Goran Radovanović’s The Makavejev Case or Trial in a Movie Theater, Slobodan Miletić enters a multiplex in Serbia with a Nagra IV-D reel-to-reel recorder. Inside the cinema that once stood there, the Yugoslavian government put Dušan Makavejev’s film WR: Mysteries of the Organism (1971) on trial, and Miletić illegally recorded the proceedings on that exact machine. The tape in the reel-to-reel becomes an essential document for understanding the uproar around Makavejev’s film, which explored the relationship between sex and Soviet society, visually juxtaposed Stalin with a dildo, and emitted plenty of manifesto-like lines of dialogue. The reel-to-reel’s consistent appearance in frame, as it travels around the town to visit Makavejev’s collaborators, is an appreciation of the tape’s rarity as a document, and the same tactile appreciation is afforded the film itself, which appears projected in the theater from an old, color-faded print. By today’s standards, many of the remarks on the tape are comical to listen back to but transmit the complex ideological confusions regarding sexual liberation and communism at the time, as well as Yugoslavia’s fears about being satirized in a similar manner.

Czechoslovakian artist Jan Švankmajer is profiled following his decision to retire from filmmaking in Athanor – The Alchemical Furnace. 16mm portraits of his various sculptures — often involving bones, teeth, food, and other degradable objects — flow into clips from his films, which often feature such items in stop-motion and are shot on the same format. This focus on the tactility of Švankmajer’s work is befitting of a man whose archive of esoteric sculptures and objects fills a basement, making it a memorable biographical documentary that truly understands the nature of its subject and differentiates itself against the recent formulaic approach of films about artists. There’s also a highly memorable use of archival film found here too, one concerning his deceased partner and close collaborator Eva Švankmajerová. A piece of footage showing her exiting their house, smiling and waving at the camera, becomes the film’s most important piece of glue, a moment returned to several times with great emotional effect.

A collection of photographs taken in Vietnam during the ‘60s by celebrated Italian film critic and filmmaker Cécilia Mangini spur on recollections about her late husband Lino Del Fra and the Vietnam War, as well as reflections on aging in Due scatole dimenticate (Two Forgotten Boxes), co-directed with Paolo Pisanelli. Films focused on photographic collections can often struggle to surpass the qualities of an exhibition or photo book as experiences affording long-term viewings of each image. Unfortunately, the film rarely stays settled on Mangini’s thought processes long enough to do so, which only amplifies the frustration of not being able to look through the especially strong photos — including Mangini’s fantastic portraits of training Vietnamese soldiers, with their idle weapons pointing directly at the viewer, emphasizing the dark void of their barrels — at one’s own pace. As one of several projects enthusiastically initiated by Pisanelli with Mangini, including an exhibition of these photographs, the film feels a little too hastily put together out of opportunity to enact a lasting impression.

Films as Collage

Press image from “Filmfarsi” (Ehsan Khoshbakht)

Films extracting moments directly from other films are a storied tradition that often engages with the cinephilic, the historical, and the personal. This year’s edition of the festival included two standout examples concerning the history of Iranian cinema. Ehsan Khoshbakht’s Filmfarsi provides a personally narrated analysis of “filmfarsi” — a classification given to pulpy films with archetypal characters that emerged between the fervor of Iran’s political moments in 1953 and 1979. Many of the films are currently lost or inaccessible, so they appear from illegal VHS copies obtained by Khoshbakht while growing up. Bookended with the infamous Cinema Rex arson at the start of the Iranian Revolution, Khoshbakht examines filmfarsi’s nature of both reflecting and misrepresenting Iranian culture. Valuably informative and often humorous, it’s a film that is best enjoyed in a theater full of people sharing the experience of seeing such moments as the image of a woman in a short skirt and a chador, the Iranian version of West Side Story, and a James Bond homage by Dariush Mehrjui before he made The Cow. Khoshbakht’s enthusiastic voiceover allows the films to transcend the dismissals of B-movie classification, and instead positions them as a way of personally understanding the tumultuous events of Iranian history. 

Despite the wide ground covered by Filmfarsi, there’s very little overlap with the films seen in Saeed Nouri’s Women According to Men — a survey of women’s roles in Iranian cinema from 1932 to 1979. Once again, there are plenty of interesting films to be exposed to here, though it lacks the more in-depth and personal storytelling that Koshbakht’s film employs. Information is instead shared through intertitles — some with more obvious statements than others — followed by sequences of related clips. That approach makes it feel a little disjointed, but it’s hard to deny the thrill of seeing so many moments in Iranian cinema that are so seldom seen. Viewed together, the films provide a crash course in a cinematic history regularly left untold. This is cinephilia and education rolled into one, partially filling in the space left by Iran’s suppression of filmic expression.

Elsewhere, Empty Horses sets clips from various films to a hypothetical conversation between Hungarian filmmakers Michael Curtiz and Gábor Bódy. Though the séance-like premise of the conversation seems promising on paper, the film’s choice of clips feels uninspired, often relying on the “Film Studies 101” moments in Stanley Kubrick and Alfred Hitchcock films. More so, the dialogue itself feels too forced, enacted in whispers that are sometimes difficult to differentiate and only ever intersect with the footage in far too obvious ways. With Frank Beauvais’ Just Don’t Think I’ll Scream still on the festival circuit and providing a tour de force in truly obsessive cinephilia, being repeatedly shown by-the-book clips from 2001: A Space Odyssey means that Empty Horses struggles to grasp any staying power. This fictionalized meeting of Curtiz and Bódy causes a longing for a more direct engagement with them and their work.

Claude Demers’ Une femme, ma mère (A woman, my mother) takes a different approach to assembling from other films, utilizing footage from the National Film Board of Canada’s production archive to tell the story of his estranged mother and his search for her. It’s a bold, Frankenstein-like approach that works efficiently — even with the scenes filmed by Demers for the film — thanks to the exclusive use of clips in a 4:3 frame and having everything in black and white. After all, these films are collectively produced by a society, and subsequently use a shared visual codex that informs and reflects our daily lives in equal measure. Demers uses the available material to piece together an image of his mother’s life before he was born, and beyond the successful formal work done here, it also achieves the goal of being an extremely personal film that explores Demers’ feelings around not knowing his mother, and poignantly asks, “Why do the left behind always feel guilty?”

History Interrogated

Other examples in the festival consider how small, significantly chosen pieces of archival film can be enlisted to amplify the overall mission of the film. In Noel Lawrence’s Sammy-Gate — a satirical collage exploring an alternate history in which Sammy Davis Jr. is employed by Nixon to investigate heroin addiction in the Vietnam War — archival film is a valuable tool for both filling in the blanks outside of Lawrence’s budget and for poking fun at how easily the plot could have been real. Assembled much like a Situationist comic book, the film’s absurdist aspects ultimately lead the way to sharp political observations. In one scene, Davis Jr. attempts to call Nixon and is answered by H.R. Haldeman, who informs him that the president is in an important meeting, while we see archival film of Nixon bowling. It’s a memorable moment that grapples with the faux diversity of the former president’s political campaign and with the collective dismay that Davis Jr. allowed himself to be used as a pawn. Sammy-Gate wouldn’t exist if it weren’t for Lawrence’s resourcefulness with archival clips, at least not without a huge budget — they become a necessary tool for filling in the gaps and crafting a new narrative inspired by history.

The Vietnam War also plays a significant role in Minh Quý Trương’s The Tree House, concerning Vietnam’s displaced and marginalized communities. Quý presents the film through the lens of a filmmaker on Mars in 2045 watching rushes from an unfinished documentary project, and this distancing affords an interrogation of his own filmmaking practice, which is thrust into overdrive when footage from the U.S. Army’s relocation program is presented side by side with his own, revealing that they share the same locations. As the clapperboards from the two vastly different projects appear side by side in split screen, the ethical questions of representing small, remote communities are explored. The proximity of the war is felt throughout the film — named after the experience of one of its subjects, who lived in a tree house for 40 years after his home was bombed — and causes Quý to doubt his role as a spectator. This small but prominent use of archival film is one of the most exacting in recent memory, aptly mirroring Paul Virilio’s observations of how the cinematic apparatus is so closely linked to war.

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Whether utilizing a single clip or a vast collection, the above examples demonstrate how valuable a tool archival film can become. One of the mixed blessings that has arisen from the wider availability of archives online is that they are often hastily uploaded to internet repositories with basic metadata and categorization, meaning that they occasionally enter into another state of limbo and are only found by those conducting in-depth research. As that saturation increases, archival-driven projects like the above will undoubtedly become more and more valuable and no less diverse in the formal sense, and their prominence at IFFR 2020, despite no dedicated strand for them, is perhaps an indication of their increased presence in years to come.

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Top image: Martin Deyres’ Les heures heureuse

The 2020 International Film Festival Rotterdam took place between January 22 and February 2.

About The Author

Andrew Northrop

Andrew Northrop has written for Cineaste, Senses of Cinema, and MUBI Notebook amongst others. He is based in London and his interests include archives, restoration, essay films, and coming of age/"slacker" narratives.

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