Archive material played a major role in a number of the films screened at last year’s International Documentary Film Festival in Amsterdam. By using archive material, images of the past are presented in the present, and thus the past itself becomes represented in the here and now. This technique is often chosen in order to rewrite history, to give us a different understanding of the past, or to uncover hidden or forgotten stories.

Dealing with the past inevitably raises questions about time. According to the late French historian Fernand Braudel, time moves at different speeds,1)See Bill Schwarz, Media times/historical times, Screen 45:2 Summer 2004, p. 100 which makes it multiple rather than singular. Braudel identified three different time periods: long-term, mid-term, and short-term.2)See Cheng-Chung Lai, Braudel’s concepts and methodology reconsidered, The European Legacy 5(1) p.65 Braudel used these concepts as a perspective on history, as a framework for periods to be analysed and understood. The longterm view takes a century or longer as the unit of analysis and may be understood as more or less immobile. The mid-term view encompasses periods between 10 and 50 years and may be considered the time-scale of social institutions, of economic systems, states, and societies. The short-term is the duration of single events, taking weeks, a season, or a few years.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HIdnXhEE6U0

Although Braudel’s concepts are not without their problems – for one thing he never defined them properly – they can serve as a way to look at films that deal with historical subjects. We can look at the perspective of the filmmaker: what scale of history is s/he addressing? But we can also look at how the different timescales are
connected. Long-term history may encompass several mid-term histories, which again may encompass short-term histories. This is not how Braudel conceived these time-concepts, but we can nevertheless use them to gain insight into how films relate to different concepts of time and how different lengths of time can be used to analyse and understand history. Three films are discussed below, in which archive material is used in different ways and to different degrees.

FAREWELL (Ditteke Mensink, The Netherlands, 2009) is composed entirely of archive images and centres on the round the world trip by the air-ship Graf Zeppelin. On board are a group of reporters, only one of whom is female: Lady Grace DrummondHay. The film consists of on-board images of the trip, archive images of the surroundings, newsreel, and fiction images. A voice-over reads Drummond-Hay’s diaries and writings, which recount both details about the trip and about her relationship with her colleague Karl Henry von Wiegand, who was also on board.

Farewell recounts a single event: the trip of the zeppelin, spanning three weeks in the summer of 1929. The trip turns out to be exciting and tiring, thrilling and demanding. Several hurdles need to be cleared on the way, both with respect to the air voyage and to the personal relationship between Drummond-Hay and Von Wiegand.

The images of this short-term history are those taken on board the zeppelin and of the airship flying over land or sea, as well as images of the surroundings (sometimes taken from a window). At times, images from newsreels and fiction film are cut in to illustrate, for example, news reports about the zeppelin trip.

The film firmly grounds this event in larger histories, most notably that of the US in the roaring twenties: lively dance halls, prohibition (barrels of booze are smashed into smithereens) and the stock exchange thriving with trade. This is the era of limitless possibilities and progress of man.

The film is also grounded in the political situation of Europe and Russia at the time: Germany is still suffering as a result of reparation payments, and new forces present themselves, seen as soldiers reporting in swastika-adorned outfits. The Russian revolution stagnates, Stalin is feared and people are not to be envied.

The images that accompany these parts of history are quite general and serve to illustrate the film script. They are not images of the trip but rather street images of New York, Friedrichshafen, Berlin and Tokyo, and images of rural Russia (or so we are led to believe).

A long-term sense of history is absent in the film. Images of the oceans, the plains, the mountains and the New York skyline do relate a sense of eternity, but they are not part of an overarching narrative.

In Farewell, the story of the zeppelin trip is told within the framework of what made it possible (the roaring twenties) and the political ideology it belonged to (the freedom of the West set against the undesirable situation/ideologies developing in Europe/Russia).

JAFFA, THE ORANGE’S CLOCKWORK (Eyal Sivan, Belgium, France, Germany, Israel, 2009) tells the story of the historical town of Jaffa in former Palestine – present day Israel (now part of Tel Aviv) – where Arabs and Christians grew and traded the best oranges, together, for decades. After the British Mandate (1917-1948) and the Nakba (1948).3 this history is, however, negated. Instead an image was consructed of Jewish immigrants bringing bare countryside and deserted orchards back to life. The film combines interviews, photos, advertisements, and archive film into a narrative that unravels the PR-campaign that erased Palestine history, painted a false but desired image of the Holy Land, and appropriated the Jaffa orange as an Israeli/Jewish success.

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References   [ + ]

1. See Bill Schwarz, Media times/historical times, Screen 45:2 Summer 2004, p. 100
2. See Cheng-Chung Lai, Braudel’s concepts and methodology reconsidered, The European Legacy 5(1) p.65