The New Cinema Made from the Old: Archival Documentaries on the Rise

Some of the best documentaries in recent years consist almost entirely of vintage material.

They Shall Not Grow Old
Warner Bros. and Imperial War Museum

It’s not often that documentaries are distributed to my neck of the woods, and even then, few of them are so cinematically necessary that I won’t settle for a screener or wait for broadcast. This year, I’ve twice gone to a multiplex to watch a doc that I considered essential for the big screen. Surprisingly, both of them are films entirely made up of archival material: They Shall Not Grow Old, which I saw in 3D, and Apollo 11, which I watched in IMAX.

In the past, archival documentaries have fallen into two unfortunate groups. There’s the conventional variety of “archival doc” that consists of your basic talking head interviews intercut with old footage and photographs, much of it rather randomly selected and presented. Such films are stiff and tend to lack cinematic innovation. Then there the films entirely or almost entirely made up of archival material, and for many years these were deemed so unconventional as to be thought ineligible for consideration by the Oscars.

Documentaries made entirely out of archival material were not in fact disqualified by the Academy, despite the snubbing of Werner Herzog‘s Grizzly Man and Asif Kapadia‘s Senna in 2005 and 2011, respectively. Instead, the style was likely just disfavored by many (or merely certain) members of the Academy’s documentary branch. Thanks to a change in the way nominees for the Best Documentary Feature category are chosen, we eventually saw more archive-heavy films make the cut, like How to Survive a Plague and Kapadia’s own Amy, which won the Oscar in 2016.

And yet Brett Morgen‘s Jane, while making the Academy’s shortlist in late 2017, was not selected for a nomination the following year. Never mind that it was one of the most critically acclaimed films of any kind of the year and one of the most popular with nonfiction fans. I don’t want to get caught up in Oscars talk, but of the two archival releases I recently watched in the theater, They Shall Not Grow Old is already out of the running for an Academy Award. The film first screened in 2018 through Fathom Events yet didn’t apply for consideration for that year. Now, it’s apparently ineligible for 2019 because of that prior year release.

Will Apollo 11 fare better with awards? The film has arrived in cinemas way ahead of “awards season,” and if it were any other kind of movie might be easily forgotten by that time. But the film is also sure to be one of the higher-grossing nonfiction releases of the year, already drawing hundreds of thousands of moviegoers to its weeklong exclusive IMAX run from March 1st to March 7th and now breaking into the top 10 at the box office over its first weekend in regular release. When I caught Apollo 11 that first week, I sat in a relatively packed house for late-afternoon showtime in the suburbs of Georgia. I could tell it was going to be a hit.

‘Apollo 11’

Why Apollo 11 and They Shall Not Grow Old have appealed so much to general audiences is not for me to say, but the amount of work put into each of them has allowed for a lot of attention from the mainstream press (see the essentials at Vanity Fair, New York Times, and Canad’s Point of View Magazine). History lessons on the mission to the Moon and British soldiers during World War I, respectively, aren’t the most likely multiplex fare even if featuring footage restored to look more recent and presented in theatrically exclusive formats. Maybe audiences are looking for more truth somewhere, anywhere, and even some are preferring the real version of events like the Moon landing as opposed to the dramatized biopic variety of the box office disappointment First Man — just don’t tell anyone that Apollo 11 fudges, too, by including clips shot during other Apollo missions to depict parts of its titular spaceflight.

If viewers are attracted to They Shall Not Grow Old and Apollo 11 because of the “treasure trove” of material and the processes through which the visual and audio footage has been restored or even enhanced, that is indeed a fine curiosity regarding a definite achievement. Some of that is luck, however, and some of it involves increasingly common yet still painstakingly toiled practices in digital color correction and other technical procedures. Jane almost seems to be colorized as much as They Shall Not Grow Old is, for instance, in its stunning cinematography where the greens in particular pop off the screen. These kinds of films can look better now thanks to such effects.

There’s no denying that the tools of the times accommodate documentary. Direct Cinema came alive because of then-new ways of making cameras and particularly sound equipment more mobile. Video allowed for more footage being shot continually without a plan. Now computer tools offer filmmakers the chance to make all that past footage look better. And yet, through it all, the most important thing for documentary film is what you do with the material and how you do it, not just in a technological sense but in an artistic storytelling sense.

Films that uncover, recover, resurrect, or present for the first time a lot of film material shot by the same cinematographers for the same purpose are appreciated for that footage now being available. Think of Hope Ryden‘s unfinished film shot 50 years ago that wound up being used for the 2011 documentary The Loving Story, in which it’s combined with far less interesting interviews and other content shot for that feature. Or the pre-Grey Gardens footage shot by Peter Beard, Albert Maysles, and others in the 1970s that recently became the basis for That Summer, which is also almost solely great for the archival stuff alone.

That Summer director Goran Olsson had already made waves with his 2011 archival exercise The Black Power Mixtape 1967-1975, which was sorely misunderstood upon release by critics who believed archival documentaries are just about presenting comprehensive histories and not, in that film’s case, more expressive and limited-point-of-view endeavors that mix history and art. As if the idea of artistic and experimental archival documentary was new and not something we could see Soviet filmmakers like Dsiga Vertov doing 80 years ago, at the very same time as they (Esfir Shub in particular) were laying the foundation of more straightforward archival compilations.

‘That Summer’

In recent years, the concept of “historical verite” (as coined by Shola Lynch for Free Angela and All Political Prisoners) or “archival verite” films have been on the rise. They use limited or no visual material other than archival footage — for Kapadia, there are still interviews but they’re all on the soundtrack rather than presented on screen in the talking head fashion. Becoming more common is the use of audio archives for voiceover narration purposes, as in the case of old interviews with World War I veterans being heard atop the restored and colorized visual material of They Shall Not Grow Old or newscaster and other expository audio bits employed for Apollo 11‘s soundtrack. Many of these films may add sound effects or feature exhaustively mixed soundscapes (Jane is one that did), so it’s not exclusively archival material, but again that’s for enhancing that which is.

The more that filmmakers are able to keep their documentaries archival based, the more they can offer a consistent visual and aural experience. Newly shot interviews and other freshly filmed scenes disrupt the flow of the archives just as stationary interview shots can interrupt an otherwise observationally geared “verite” documentary. Just as if a dramatic film can go a long period without dialogue and show itself to represent truly cinematic storytelling, documentaries that can avoid or limit onscreen explanation and commentary does the same. The best filmmakers either way, in my opinion, let visuals speak for themselves.

So, while the technological efforts of They Shall Not Grow Old (which was accompanied by a making-of special in theaters to show the work) and Apollo 11 are impressive, they don’t make these movies what they are on their own any more than a pile of reels of found footage spliced together is immediately a great film. Respectively, directors Peter Jackson and Todd Douglas Miller, with help from their editing teams (Jackson’s primary editor here was usual collaborator Jabez Olssen, while Miller is the credited editor for his feature), had the arguably more challenging task in choosing and piecing the material into a compelling motion picture.

And they’re not similar at all. Jackson’s movie is more a compilation of parts that really could have been assembled in any which way, though there is some cohesion between what we hear and what we see, even though those two elements never consist of audio and visuals that were directly connected in their time (unless by some coincidence that we’ll never realize anyway). Miller also put together a puzzle but one with a certain blueprint as far as what needed to fit where — or when. And Apollo 11 does join material directly related and shot at the same time but which was probably only discovered as such through careful cataloging of separately stored and sometimes separately located inventory of footage.

When archival material is edited together so that scenes play out as more than isolated clips, whether because the coverage existed, as in the case of much of what we see in Apollo 11, or is smartly crafted to appear to be cutting on action, that holds the audience’s attention more firmly through segments of the narrative, if not the whole. Other artistic directorial choices, such as what Miller brilliantly does with personal effects and individually focused footage to create brief biographical flashbacks for Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin, and Michael Collins, show that this isn’t just about fitting pieces together either.


A lot of today’s archival docs have noteworthy or at least just more noticeable music scores, which can indeed help to guide the audience through the material with a singular element that is steady and persistent. I do find some such scores to be a little too much and distracting, as in the case of Philip Glass‘ otherwise mesmerizing soundtrack for Jane. This might also be a personal issue as I’m someone who isn’t always good with aural attention. Usually, I don’t notice or think about music scores much at all, but Glass is so familiar and so dominant that he can take over on that film, for me.

Jane has a lot of things going for it, though. What I love about the current boom of archival docs is, while other forms of documentary, whether the films are good or bad, tend to still look and feel the same and have the same effect or purpose, none of these are much alike at all. Year after year, these films are high on my best-of lists because despite being made out of old footage they each have a freshness and uniqueness to them that makes them stand out.

They Shall Not Grow Old is a sort of broad historical dream, somewhat similar to the closely set Teenage but more authentic feeling in a time-travel manner because it doesn’t use modern actors’ voices. Even without the 3D format, it really seems to bring those soldiers and the war alive and into the theater. Apollo 11 is a thrilling experience that transports us back to July 1969. Jane is a character piece. Dawson City: Frozen Time is an absolute enchantment in its repurposing of relevant film clips.

Many new documentarians clearly want to be other filmmakers; there are the Wiseman wannabes, the Ken Burns copycats, certainly the excessively self-centered followers of Moore, McElwee, and Broomfield. Docs that are going for the full-on archival style aren’t really looking to any precursor or precedent or to one another for how these films ought to be. That’s exciting. Maybe the most exciting thing going on in documentary right now. And the fact that some of them are also box office hits is even better.

Next up: Amazing Grace, which I think counts in a way, in as much as it went unfinished for decades and evolved into an archival doc, akin to what occurred with The Loving Story and That Summer but without the need (thankfully) for new material added on. And again, this doc has already been receiving mainstream media coverage due to the story of its making, and that ought to translate to ticket sales, too. Maybe Jackson’s title isn’t about its subject matter. The archives shall not grow old as long as great filmmakers keep giving them a new life.

(Editor in Chief)

Christopher Campbell is the founding editor of Nonfics.