The Stories Documentary Archives Tell

While watching old documentaries provides an interesting look into nonfiction film history, sometimes the coolest discoveries lurk in dusty cardboard filing boxes.

This summer I enjoyed the opportunity to delve into Kartemquin Films‘ archives. Kartemquin has been busy making documentaries for more than 50 years, and with three new titles so far in 2016 alone, they show no signs of slowing down. I came away from my explorations thinking documentary work should be measured in reams of paper, not in shooting-to-editing ratios.

Digging through archives offers the adventure of exploring familiar trees rooted in unfamiliar woods. Some documents are to be expected in the course of operations: fundraising strategies, grant applications, acceptance and rejection letters, budgets, contracts, meeting agendas, consent forms, licensing agreements, legal correspondence, strategy memos, press releases, and marketing materials. At a University of Chicago speaking engagement in June, Kartemquin co-founder and current artistic director Gordon Quinn joked about keeping everything — but I’m not entirely sure he was kidding.

Materials from my initial inquiries ranged about 1985-2002, covering films such as Golub (1988), Hoop Dreams (1994), Vietnam Long Time Coming (1998), Stevie (2002), and Refrigerator Mothers (2002), along with a smattering of other films’ materials and external marketing materials. After 200 pages of notes so far, I feel I am only beginning to scratch the surface, but I have learned some interesting things about archival research, documentary history, and Kartemquin Films.

Archives represent living history. They hold mysteries about the past just as they reveal something about the present. A document appearing within an archive is never neutral. It is as much about the text on the page as it is about the contexts surrounding it. A document may have an official purpose, or it might be something much more personal. Either way, each document tells a story or two of its own while contributing to the larger narrative.

But these documents often tell incomplete stories, much like reality. For example, I found page 1 of what looked like an incredible manifesto, complete with — and perhaps not surprisingly — an opening quote from John Dewey, but there was no page 2. Another letter reached out to Frank Zappa possibly to participate in a documentary series about art, but did Zappa reply? The archives remained mum.

Some of the more interesting documents reveal the complex relationships that develop during a film’s production and continue after a film’s release. Editing questions, for example, can become intense during the production process. They cover so many possibilities: whom to include, whom to exclude, what details to include, what details to exclude, how often to appear, and how to frame all of them. And, of course, disagreements abound on every one of those questions.

Another complex relationship emerges with participants and consent agreements. Consent is nowhere near as simple as a signed piece of paper. It is a fluctuating relationship that continues and evolves even after a documentary’s release. Some participants write to express support for the films and the issues they address, while others write to express how upset they are about their representations. For example, the uplifting sports and veterans story Vietnam, Long Time Coming drew much praise, while the highly complex Stevie drew more mixed responses.

The most complex relationships I found among all that paperwork involved distribution deals. Distribution contracts represent a long-term relationship with terms dictated by all parties involved. Of course, some parties hold more power than others, and it was interesting to see each party advocating for its own interests and values, particularly with Hoop Dreams.

With paperwork comes handwriting: elaborate doodles, scribbled questions, penciled budgets, and scrawled memos. Some comments revealed some deep thinking about the issues at hand, while others showed touching connections developed during productions. One list appearing on yellow notepad paper, for example, features several books that might be good for the Vietnamese girls they met while filming Vietnam, Long Time Coming. Titles included The Secret Garden, The Hobbit, A Wrinkle in Time, and The Education of Little Tree. One memo even featured a sketch of a station wagon. Many comments showed a deep sense of humor — something necessary in the face of struggles related to raising funds, completing projects, and finding distributors.

Old school physical media storage lurked in multiple folders. In the Vietnam, Long Time Coming box I discovered projection slides and 3 1/2-inch hard disks. In the Hoop Dreams folders I found another 3 1/2-inch disk with a script on it. Other boxes held 5 1/4-inch floppy disks and even cassette tapes. While I had no devices to access the content on these media, I still feel something is being lost as everything now is transitioning to digital.

Not all the history buried in those archives is related specifically to Kartemquin, but it did connect with the documentary community at the time. One series of folders contained flyers from other documentary production and distribution companies. Some still operate today, such as New Day Films, California Newsreel, AppalShop, and Zipporah films, but others I had not heard of, such as Greenwich Film Associates, Documentary Associates Inc., Film Images, Cine Manifest, Public Interest Video Network, and Red Ball Films. Many of these companies were based in California or the New York City metro area, but interestingly enough others had addresses in Colorado, Washington state, and Ohio. I do wonder what became of them and their archives. What were their stories? How and why did they end?

Going through these boxes made me feel like I was standing on a two-foot slab of ice jutting out of the Arctic Ocean. I was only seeing the surface when so much, much more remains to be discovered underneath the water.

Leave a Reply