Skip to main content

Shane O’Sullivan – Creative reuse in documentary filmmaking and education


Shane O’Sullivan (Kingston School of Art)

Okay, so good afternoon, and thanks very much for inviting me, Bart. What I’m going to talk about in the second part of my presentation is very much inspired by Paul Gerhardt and the work of the BFI and Ben at the Creative Archive, so I’ll come to that in a few minutes.

Here we have a still from We Are The Lambeth Boys, a film from the late fifties’ Free Cinema movement, which is part of a student archive based initiative that I’ve been running at Kingston.

But before I come to that, I’ll talk about my initial background as a documentary filmmaker, and one of my films Children of the Revolution, as a case study of how an independent filmmaker like myself works with archive material and works with licensing archive for a historical project, and some of the complexities of that.

I’m a documentary filmmaker who then did a PhD and went into academia and is now a senior lecturer in filmmaking at Kingston University. Children of the Revolution concerns Ulrike Meinhof who maybe some of you know as a revolutionary who came out of the ’68 movement in Germany and turned to the terrorist movement, the Baader Meinhof group, and the film’s also about a similar figure in Japan called Fusako Shigenobu who is the intellectual leader of the Japanese Red Army, and then went to Lebanon in the early seventies and worked with the PFLP.

So the film tried to tell the stories of these two historical figures through the eyes of their daughters who were both journalists and who were brought up as children of terrorists essentially, so that was the frame for the story.

So you’re going to see most of the trailer and a black and white sequence towards the end of the clip that I can only clear for Germany. So, in essence, the film shown in Germany and the film shown outside Germany were two different films because of the archive clearance process.

So if we could just run the first clip, Children of the Revolution please. [Film clip].

Okay. So really the last sequence of black and white archive there was, for me, the summation of the title of the film, and my concept for the film, Children of the Revolution, and the jumping off point where Meinhof chose terrorism over her family basically, and as a result the family broke up.

Bettina Röhl her daughter later accused the father of being a paedophile, and it’s in her reporting ten years or so ago, so that to me was the crux of the film, but I couldn’t licence that material outside Germany.

So in the DVD version that’s available in the UK and various versions around the world it’s missing that segment, the father is excluded completely because that WDR footage couldn’t be included. It came from a short feature made for WDR who are a public broadcaster in Germany based in Cologne, part of the ARD network, so it was made for an independent film.

The beginning of my search for this clip, having seen it in a few other documentaries in the WDR database, took months simply because the metadata when you search for these clips is often incorrect or inaccurate. She worked for Konkret magazine so it was tagged ‘Ulrike Konkret,’ so only those with complete information would ever find it, it was like a needle in a haystack.

So I eventually found it, and they sent me master footage. I was making the film with WDR as a co-producer – for their feature documentary slot – and with the Irish Film Board, so I was working with public broadcasters or public institutions and obviously within that context I had to deal with archive in a certain way, I couldn’t just claim fair use, and this was seven years ago so it was a different climate.

In terms of rights clearance, for that particular black and white sequence of the father and Ulrike’s private interview, these were the kind of things that they were telling me from the rights clearance department.

They’d given me an in-house archive consultant to work with in trying to find the material in the German archives, they’d given me some listings of archives used in previous German programmes on the Baader Meinhof group, but they were saying that basically contributor and crew agreements in seventies Germany didn’t foresee programmes being resold in the future.

So clearing permission from key contributors retrospectively was going to be very difficult, and they had to go to the original commissioning editors, or if they weren’t alive, the commissioner in that slot in the present day, and they were wary of breaching modern privacy laws in terms of who was on screen, and also triggering residual claims by crew or contributors retrospectively.

So in the end they bent over backwards to try and facilitate the making of the programme, and they allowed me to use this key footage for TV distribution worldwide, and also in the WDR broadcast as that was the original intention of the programme, but distribution in other formats was not possible.

So I ended up with a TV version of ninety-two minutes and a DVD version of eighty-eight minutes but for me, those four minutes are crucial in terms of the essence of the film, so I feel that two different films resulted from that process, as a result of the decision making that goes on behind the scenes in framing that kind of story and how archive clearance can affect it.

Another factor is budget. When you work with a broadcaster, typically they’ll have a rate card, and unless you’re clearing five/ten minutes of material they’ll pretty much stick to that rate card which makes it quite difficult for low or no budget productions to get anywhere near that archive in writing or re-writing history.

I found that quite a difficult process. Obviously it was made easier because I had a German co-producer and I had access to some funding, but just to look at some of the economics of it that I’ve written about while I was doing my PhD, I would say half of my budget went on archive clearance and half of the co-production funding that I got from WDR went back to the ARD network in licence fees for German archive material that I’d cleared for worldwide use.

I cleared one minute of footage with a Swedish archive for ten years’ worldwide, and that amounted to half the acquisition price for the film when it was later picked up by a Swedish public broadcaster. And if you know what prices are currently paid by Swedish broadcasters for documentaries you’ll know I got a very good deal on the archive, and that’s probably why I later went into academia.

So it was a big learning curve for me and then, after going into academia, I tried to pass on some of this to the students in terms of how they go about clearing copyright for archive, but also thinking there must be a better way to do this – particularly working with public institutions and public broadcasters and particularly in education.

I think I’ll limit myself to the German side of the equation with Children of the Revolution. But one final thing to speak of would be the contributors to the film. Here we have Ulrike Meinhof – that’s a police mugshot on the left; Jutta Ditfurth, Meinhof’s biographer and champion, who thinks of her of this idyllic revolutionary figure from the early seventies; and her daughter Bettina Röhl who basically feels her mother went crazy when she joined the terrorist movement and abandoned her twin daughters and her family.

So all of these figures, particularly Jutta Ditfurth and Bettina, have a vested interest in terms of how the story of Ulrike Meinhof is told.

Bettina has home movies, she has family photograph collections that she can allow filmmakers to use if she’s happy with the way they’re going to present her mother’s story, and if it’s going to be different from the mythology of her mother as this revolutionary figure of the German left that has been seen in many programmes in Germany, that she basically disavows.

On the other side we’ve a journalist like Jutta Ditfurth who’s slowly built up her own independent collection of archive material around Meinhof through writing books and participating in programmes over the years, so it becomes a battle of ‘either you work with me or you work with her.’

And the same thing goes for some of the Red Army faction members in Germany. I’d basically have to tell them who was going to be in the film before they would agree to be in the film, because they could feel from my selection of contributors what kind of ideological position and editorial view I was going to take in the film, so some of those factors play into accessing archive material.

And in Bettina’s case, I guess our relationship disintegrated to the point where she wanted editorial control of how her interview (which she had signed a release form for) would be used in the film. She wouldn’t allow me to use any of the archive unless I gave her that editorial control.

And then later on, she was suggesting that I couldn’t use her mother’s statements or any of her mother’s audio – I could use the interview but no sound – because she claimed it was part of her estate and, unless she cleared it, they couldn’t be used. This would basically deny Ulrike Meinhof a voice in any historical programme unless Bettina approved it.

So you can see all of the different complexities this poor struggling independent filmmaker was facing on one of my first international co-productions, so it was an interesting process.

So I think I’ll skip the Japanese section just for time, and just move on to what I’ve been doing at Kingston, and I must again tip a nod to the Creative Archive for sparking my interest in all of this, when I was doing my PhD. I was looking at initiatives around archive in the UK at that time, and Paul and Ben’s work on the Creative Archive was a major influence, as I’ve acknowledged in previous presentations.

So in terms of what I set out to do, I began working as a lecturer in film production within a degree that offered film production and film studies, so both theory and practice. And I was looking for ways the two could begin to talk to each other, either through the creation of video essays or incorporating the use of archive in new productions that the students were making in their own first-time documentaries.

I was teaching first year students, and I don’t know if you can read the purple text there, but the film literacy definition in a BFI document from 2013 defines film literacy as ‘the level of understanding of a film, the ability to be conscious and curious in the choice of films, the competence to critically watch a film and to analyse its content, cinematography and technical aspects, and the ability to manipulate its language and technical resources in creating moving image production’.

So I saw either video essays – where you’re working with found footage – or archive-inspired documentaries – where you’re melding archive and newly shot footage originated by the students – as ways to do that.

So really at the beginning of the process it was thinking: how can we open up access to archive material for educational use in universities?; how can the creative reuse of this archive content enhance film literacy and bridge this theory practice divide for students between their film studies modules and their film production modules?; and by remixing and re-contextualising image and sound how can video writing increase student engagement with that whole process?

After researching the Creative Archive for a journal article and my PhD thesis, I contacted Paul Gerhardt who very kindly agreed to give me an hour of his time and I interviewed him about what had happened with the Creative Archive – which Ben’s just illustrated beautifully in his presentation. After that, I went back to Paul and I said, ‘well, if I want to reignite the idea of the Creative Archive in higher education and try and rebuild it in some form, using selected films from the BFI National Archive, would it be possible, would you support it?’ And he was very positive.

So I came back to him with the idea for a pilot at Kingston where we could use twelve films from the BFI National Archive that were either owned by the BFI, had Crown copyright status, or had third party rights holders who were happy to clear the material, and to give students access to those twelve films, to watch and to work with. They would choose one of those films to inspire a new documentary, and the brief for the film was for that piece of archive to be their inspiration or the starting point for their own film, on a similar theme to the archive film that they chose.

So it started in January this year, video essays at Kingston. Before this assignment, they’d done a short documentary about people and places in an assigned London Borough. So with this second assignment, the idea was to continue exploring people and places, but bringing in the concept of representation and time by incorporating an archival element.

So we agreed an educational licence for the twelve films with the BFI that allowed us to legitimately use them. Most of the films were tied to representations of London over time, and what they say about the students’ lifves in London today, and they had to make a short video essay, five to ten minutes, as a creative response to one of those films.

So I made a thirty-minute teaser reel of the twelve films that I could show them in the first session, and then ten of the twelve films were on the BFI Player, so they could go off and have a look at the films in their own time on BFI Player and come back to me and say this is the film I’m interested in using.

I got them to pick out the time codes from which bits of the film they thought they could incorporate into a new work. And then modelling professional practice, I didn’t give them the whole master of that particular film, I watermarked the master clips that they’d asked for using the time codes and I prepared those for them for use in their edits.

I didn’t want them to depend on the archive for their own film, so I had a rule that 80% of the film should be their own original material, 20% should be a quotation or using some of the archive from their chosen film, and I said you can respond to whatever part of the film you like, in whatever way you like, so apart from choosing the film, the brief was pretty open.

I’ll show you an example of one of the student films that was made. We’re assessing them on competence in documentary filmmaking techniques, and their ability to tell a story, and explore a subject using editing and juxtaposition of the archive and their own original material.

And they also made a group presentation after making the film, reflecting on the whole process and how they had responded to the brief and put theory and practice together in their films, transforming the archive into something new.

So here are some of the films, and I should say at this point that we’re now moving into phase two of the scheme where we’re throwing these twelve films open to any students and any university in the UK to use.

We just launched the scheme a few weeks ago, so feel free to contact me if you’d like to sign up to the scheme. Twenty institutions have so far. You can access these twelve films through a simple educational licence agreement ad make them available to your students or to you as students in a range of different disciplines, it doesn’t have to be film.

You can see that they date from 1957. Two examples from the Free Cinema movement; two films that were made for National Refugee Week in 1960 on the theme of immigration; two on education, directed by noted filmmakers like John Krish from the early sixties; How to Use a Camera (in this case a Super 8 camera); films on regeneration going through the sixties; and films on multi-cultural London, ranging from London Me Bharat, the first Hindi language film made in the UK in 1973, to Divide and Rule – Never!, a punk-infused anti-racism film made by the Newsreel Collective, which was the most popular film creatively reused by my students. Three of the nine films were inspired by it in some respect. And the last film in the selection is a film made at the Notting Hill Carnival in the early eighties.

I’m going to show one of the student films inspired by Divide and Rule – Never! One of them located two of the remaining members of the Newsreel Collective and interviewed them about the making of the film, but today I’ll just show a short clip of the beginning of Stand Up To Racism which was made by two of our students, so if we could just show that clip please. [Film clip].

For me, it was great to see these pieces of archive push the students into areas that I don’t think they would’ve necessarily gone into without that starting idea, so I think it was a really positive experience for them, the feedback was great and the archive gave them ideas and direction for their films.

Ownership and future use was an issue for some in terms of could they put their films on YouTube and would the archive providers be happy with that? So that’s an issue that we probably have to work out over the next coming months in terms of extending the scheme. There was also some confusion initially about the video essay concept because that’s generally based around found footage rather than a mix of archive and original material, so probably ‘film essay’ or ‘essay film’ would be a better term for me to use this year.

So to my conclusion: by starting small and working with this curated selection of twelve films that weren’t that difficult to clear, I think it is possible for an archive to create a curated selection of films to make available to students for education, particularly as it’s coming from a cultural heritage institution, or from a public archive, and that hopefully we can work with more public archives or cultural heritage institutions to make a wider pool of material available to students for use on coursework. To start to bring history to life in their own version of history, their own writing of history, and connecting it and giving it a resonance in their lives today.

Rather than just viewing our audio-visual heritage on Box of Broadcasts, or EUscreen, or iPlayer, or the BFI Player, we can see creative use play more of a role rather than just the films made by Charlie [Lyne] or made by Adam Curtis on the BBC iPlayer.

So more open access to use and reuse of publicly owned material that can allow young filmmakers to reactivate fragments from our shared cultural history and connect them to their lives today, and I think that would all be of benefit to all of us. Thanks very much.