03 · 10 · 15

What is found footage?: The possibilities of the archive

By: Ma. Cristina Alemán, editora en jefe (@mcristina)

You’ve probably heard the term ‘found footage’ before, but what exactly does it mean? As the name indicates, found footage is audiovisual material that is presented outside of its original context: images that were found (in a film archive or home movie) rather than created expressly for a particular work of art. This is a broad (and somewhat ambiguous) definition, since it could span a number of possibilities, many of which I’ll try to address below.

Found footage as a source of truth

In documentary cinema, just as in the news, it is common to use archive footage to illustrate something: a historical event, or women’s fashion in a certain age, for instance. There are documentaries made up entirely of found footage, like Asif Kapadia’s Senna (2010) and Adam Curtis’ It Felt Like a Kiss (2009). On other occasions, archive footage is mixed with new material – like the short films of Mexican director Dalia Huerta Cano, which have screened at FICM. Using found footage can be a way to strengthen the film’s context or a particular argument – in these cases it works almost like a quotation from another author.

Fiction films can also use pre-existing audiovisual material as a way to contextualize the film’s history and enhance its realism. Despite the many ways in which audiovisual material can be manipulated, still it remains intrinsically linked to photography and, as such, with reality. When we see an old film we have the feeling that things really happened “just like that”… we could be seeing something made-up, but the moment itself that is captured on video (or film) becomes a substitute for our own memory.

{{Final Cut – Ladies and Gentlemen}} (2012) by György Pálfi poster.

Final Cut – Ladies and Gentlemen (2012) by György Pálfi poster.

Found footage as a tool for making art

At the beginning of the 20th Century, Marcel Duchamp put a urinal in a museum in New York and the whole world went crazy. When a filmmaker or video-artist uses an object (or piece of audiovisual material) that was not originally intended to be ‘art’, and that he or she did not physically ‘make’, that filmmaker reappropriates and changes its meaning.

Collage films, which are made up of found footage from many different sources, explore the expressive possibilities of archive material, no matter where it came from. For example, György Pálfi’s Final Cut – Ladies and Gentleman (2012), which was presented at the 10th edition of FICM, used fragments of 500 films from all around the world to tell his own archetypal love story. An older example is Dziga Vertov’s Man with a Movie Camera (1929), a documentary in which a poetic logic is more important than a temporal or spacial one. Though Dziga Vertov (and his team) shot the images in Man with a Movie Camera, the way the film was edited set a precedent that has influenced collage films ever since.

The art world has also seen some incredible installations that make use of found footage. For example, Christian Marclay’s The Clock is an installation that is, in effect, a clock, but that is made up of thousands of scenes taken from film and television programs, meticulously edited to show ‘real time’ (the installation lasts 24 hours exactly). Each scene includes a time indicator (a clock, or a piece of dialogue, for instance) that is synchronized with the real time passing in the gallery.

In Mexico, since 2012, we have had the ‘Journeys of Reappropriation’, a space for modern short films that re-use footage. Submissions for the 2015 edition are open until May 15, after which time selected films will be presented online and at selected participating venues. You can see the Official Online Selection from 2014, curated by Gabriela Ruvalcaba and Bruno Varela, here.

Fake found footage

Probably the most well-known example is Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sánchez’ The Blair Witch Project (1999), whose publicity campaign consisted in making the public believe that the film was really made up of footage found in the forest after the disappearance of the protagonists. The premise wasn’t that the film was ‘based on true events’, but that you were actually watching true events, a fact that made it all the more terrifying. The truth is that The Blair Witch Project was always fictional, but it was shot to look like found footage, just like Oren Peli’s Paranormal Activity (2007).

Although it’s not exactly the same, mockumentaries or fake documentaries also play with the audience’s expectation that they are seeing something ‘real’ – they imitate a cinematic language that we associate with documentary film to present something totally fictional.

Found footage as a means of preservation

Compared with other art forms, the birth of cinema happened relatively recently. In spite of this, curators find themselves confronted with a monumental quantity of audiovisual material that needs to be properly catalogued and archived for its preservation. How many hours of moving images have been created since the beginning of cinema, until now? The recycling of found footage is a way to reassess humankind’s audiovisual heritage.

For more information about found footage, I recommend that you visit the Journeys of Reappropriation official website (jornadasdereapropiacion.tk). Below you will find a short film taken from their site: This Song Was Written by Leonard Cohen, by Anne Forrester, which demonstrates that nothing is truly original.

If you have the creative impulse and think that found footage could inspire you, the internet is brimming with audiovisual archives containing material that is free and legal to use. So go for it!