What am I watching? On working with archives

19 January, 2023

“The idea of beginning, indeed the act of beginning, necessarily involves an act of delimitation by which something is cut out of a great mass of material, separated from the mass, and made to stand for, as well as be, a starting point, a beginning,” writes Edward W. Said in his introduction to his work Orientalism (1978).

Indeed, it is just as difficult for me to being describing my own experience working with archive materials, as it was the case when I began to work with the materials themselves four years ago. Firstly, it is difficult for me to let go of the imposter syndrome that takes hold of me when I want to take my task seriously because of two reasons. The first – the object that is the result of my work is unremarkable from a reception point of view in comparison with other films of the Romanian cinema, generally, and with other non-fiction films that utilize archie materials particularly. My movie was screened a couple of times in Romanian cinemas. There are few who have heard of it. If I set a bar against this film, it seems like a mysterious, ethereal, secret object. The second reason has to do with my own position as a creator of this little urban myth whose existence is uncertain. Who am I, from what position of authority can I pretend to present, to explain, to exemplify the complexity of working with archive material given my very limited experience regarding this matter?

I have worked with archive material in order to realize one 90-minute film. That is all. It is not an experience that I have repeated ever since up to this moment in order to identify some favorite work patterns. I used a single type of material – public, official material which was produced by an institution of the Socialist Republic of Romania in order to sere as a means of disseminating values, beliefs and ideas that should have governed, from the Party’s point of view, the Romanian society in 1968. I have not worked with any other type of archive materials – domestic ones, intimate ones, personal ones, in other words, other types of archives that were made bearing other purposes in mind than as official megaphones. Just as true, I have not worked with archives made in other eras, therefore archive materials that were colonized by other types of ideologies in order to identify the mechanisms through which the archive materials, generally, influence their own reception in contemporaneity. Nor have I worked with raw material, meaning filmed and forgot on the shelf, only with material that had been already edited, colorized, with a soundtrack in which there had already been inserted musical fragments, words, phrases, ideas, with pieces of de-contextualized frames which were then mathematically glued to other frames that were de-contextualized, glued to frames that were at times nothing other than that – mere recordings on the film of objects, people and landscapes that found themselves to be at that moment in front of the camera, but which other times tried to send a thought, a feeling, a glitter of something, a fragment of time that had been cut up for posterity. I worked with the material in a single way (one that has its own subsets) – starting with the audio-visual fragment, from the image-sound unit, which I then tried to deconstruct in order to build, through it, my own discourse on the archive material itself). I did not just work with images that had been cut from their sound, which I would then modify through various techniques, such as: slowing down a frame to give the viewer time to observe a gesture, a gaze or the way in which a body or object moves; the zooming in on a section of a frame to highlight an otherwise hard to see detail; the reverse play of a frame for ludic purposes, to create certain and different rhythmical effects or to highlight and analyze a fleeting moment caught on camera, a moment that, because of its quickness, would not allow for an optimal observation in real time. I did not just work with images, separated from their sound which then I would utilize with a completely different intent than that for which they had been produced, as in building on top of them a narrative that would have no connection with who, when, how and why those images had been filmed. Anyway, I did not intend to use these images in order to irrationally instill emotions in the viewer, to stir melancholies and nostalgias that often times are placed by the public opinion in a superficial, while using banter as a means, and a reductionist manner at the expense of limited intellectual capacity of those who feel this way, in order to confirm or infirm the affective automatisms of relating to that period and all that it meant or to repeat what has already been said in various ways, under various pretenses and with various intents on that age and its people. 

Collage by Beatrice Arzoiu

What I sought to do when I began working on the film was to identify what Althusser called ‘the problem’ and Foucault called ‘the discourse’ of objects. Not the identifiable discourse, the one that can be heard or seen easily in the materials, but rather the discourse that is built by the absences, by what is not said or shown directly, consciously, so the subconscious of a text that is here understood as an association of signs (words, images, sounds and/or gestures). We now get to the difficulty of the act of initiation and of designating a starting point when working with archive materials. From where then I go on to understand the materials with which I work, and from where then I move on to build the film.

With regards to the materials, I began discussing the context of production: when where they made, who made them, and with what purpose. Although the materials should have revealed the official state ideology, they are the product of hundreds of minds who wrote, filmed, edited them, so, inevitably, the personal values, ideas, beliefs of all these people seeped into the materials and can be identified in the little internal contractions that are encompassed in the materials, from the way in which women were shot, for example, in a so-called egalitarian society, to who has the right to use the microphone in a so-called ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’, from the length of a frame in which a worker is shot, for example, to the length of a frame in which someone with a higher social status appears. So, I focused on finding the patterns of representation of different social categories and classes and at the same time on the patterns of internal contradictions of the materials – all with the purpose of showing that there cannot be only one single monolith-way of reading these archive materials, and that they are an excellent way of better understanding the age that they represent. 

The biggest difficulty I had was trying to understand and represent my own internal contradictions regarding the way I had approached the materials. In order to better understand what I am watching and how I approach it, I set three rules for myself. The first: if it is not in the materials, it does not exist – to put a brake on my tendency of telling other stories than those that were offered to me through the images. The second: there is no ‘correct’ way of working with archive materials – in order to allow myself to experiment as I see fit with the archive materials in a logic of the collage, where there is no central mode of sequencing the elements with regard to esthetic norms and standards of ‘good taste’. The third: the only thing that I can certainly say about all the images of the film is that at one point all the people, objects and places that are being represented where, once, placed in front of a camera. The rest is just interpretation.

Collage by Beatrice Arzoiu

It turns out that the starting point in constructing the film was easily identifiable once I understood what I was working with, what interested me and where I wanted to get at. I order to deconstruct the materials, I must first ‘show’ them as they are, unmodified, listed one after the other based on the logic of my own taste, based on associations that only I can understand, but which are not revealed at the beginning of the film. And then I group them, separate them, and place them in contradiction, modify them, fragment them, repeat them, reuse them in another context than the one they were initially thought for, in order to make room for my own discourse on the materials.

Obviously, I failed. Not because I did not manage to correctly identify the structures, patterns, the context in which these materials may be analyzed or used. Again, when I watch the film, I think that this is the best version I, despite my limited capacities and abiding rigorously to the premises that I set to build it from the beginning, could have made. Leaving out some elements which I would take out because they work against the initial editing concept, I still consider that it is a good film. Keeping all this in mind, I think that I have failed. I have failed because I did not manage to find a clear, explicit enough and easy to be identified by a bigger audience method to represent my thoughts, opinions, and feelings that I have for the materials. I have failed because it was my first film and the failure is its logical consequence. I have failed because I was stubborn enough to do it all by myself. I have failed because I did not trust my gut. I have failed because I wanted to please, to thank, to appease. And I am OK with that. 


This article was published first in the 2022 printed issue of the magazine, still available in our online shop.

Documentary filmmaker and film critic, UNATC graduate. She used to write about films. Now she’s trying to make them. She has been a contributing editor for Film Menu magazine from 2012 to 2016 and has published film studies essays in two editions of the collective volume The Politics of Film in 2014 and 2018. The Certainty of Probabilities is her first feature documentary.