The economy of memory: Archive-driven documentaries in the digital age

O'Sullivan, Shane (2013) The economy of memory: Archive-driven documentaries in the digital age. The Journal of Media Practice, 14(3), pp. 231-248. ISSN (print) 1468-2753


Archive footage and photographs are an essential element of any historical film but the conditions of access, the limits of copyright and the cost of clearance and licensing have become increasingly complicated, making archive-driven films on low budgets increasingly challenging. I experienced these problems first-hand on my recent archive-driven feature documentary Children of the Revolution (2010), which explores the history of Ulrike Meinhof and Fusako Shigenobu, two women inspired by the student revolutions of 1968 to overthrow capitalism through world revolution, as leaders of the Baader Meinhof Group and the Japanese Red Army. As half of the film consists of archive footage, clearing and licensing this material within my modest budget was the most time-consuming and challenging aspect of the production. In this article, I’ll explore the typical workflow for such a creative documentary and the industrial obstacles that make archive-driven historical films increasingly rare, unless commissioned by a broadcaster. I’ll explore recent public policy initiatives in the area of copyright licensing and fair use and their potential impact on filmmakers and the commercial archive industry. I’ll also consider alternative models for archive-driven historical films that stretch the form while skirting the clearance complications and expense of the standard industry model.

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