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Finding Footage in a Foreign Land

By Laura Almo

Don't you just love archival footage? At its best, it's a window into the past and a revelation about a period in time. A scene of kids hula-hooping in the Soviet Union, for example, can make a film look and feel more authentic and honest, and can touch the emotional core of audiences.

Fun as it may be to work with archival footage, tracking it down comes with many challenges: Where do you go to find it? How do you access archives? How do you license and pay for it? These are all concerns for the documentary filmmaker. Now, thanks to online archives, access to archival footage has become more widely available. And while it's easier—and often less expensive—to research from your laptop, if you really want to find footage that is uniquely suited to your film, sometimes you need to be on the ground scouring state and personal archives.

That said, it's hard enough to do archival research in the United States, but how do you do it abroad, where there's a more complicated set of logistics and circumstances? From working in a country where you may not speak the language to knowing where to look for footage to navigating bureaucracy to access official collections, conducting archival research abroad presents its own complications. Documentary caught up with a few filmmakers to hear their stories.

Robin Hessman—My Perestroika

Robin Hessman's 2010 film My Perestroika is an intimate portrait of five Russians who were part of the last generation to grow up in the USSR. Now in their 40s, the subjects reflect on that period, and especially how the fall of the Soviet Union impacted their lives and continues to do so. Contrasting personal experience with official history, My Perestroika incorporates both Soviet propaganda films and home movies. "It was always about the home movies juxtaposed against the official state images of childhood," says Hessman. "The home movies are so intimate. They are images that we were never exposed to in the West-kids learning to ride their bicycles or picking mushrooms in the forest with their grandparents or playing badminton...the stuff of everyday life that we didn't have access to." Hessman was intent on getting as much home movie footage from the '60s, '70s and '80s as she could. "In a sense, it's the closest thing you can get to just being there," she notes.

Hessman, who speaks fluent Russian, went to film school in Moscow and worked in television in Russia, began her search for home movies early on, but it was hard to find any because it was rare for Soviets to own home movie cameras. She explains that it was an expensive hobby and, without film labs, people had to develop and print film themselves.

The filmmaker began her search by word-of-mouth, asking people if they knew of anybody who had a camera in those years. From there, she widened her search with the help of a Russian blogger, who posted announcements, placed classified ads in a Russian magazine and circulated e-mails far and wide. Sources began trickling in. One of the largest collections Hessman happened upon was from someone who had emigrated to New York. But the stroke of good luck came when the filmmaker discovered that the father of one of the main subjects of the film had shot home movies all through his child's youth. "I never in a million years imagined that I would have footage of my actual subjects," Hessman admits. "I was really, really lucky because one subject's father shot all of the classmates, so I had images of all of them when they were little."

Navigating the Russian Archives had its own challenges. Hessman reflects that it helped a lot that she could speak the language fluently and was already familiar with the Russian system, so she wasn't "starting from zero." Still, says Hessman, the bureaucracy is everywhere. "Any academic will regale you with stories of their adventures working in various Russian Archives—from the characters and personalities of the people who work there to the bureaucracy of getting the right passes and permissions," she adds.

Hessman conducted research at the Krasnogorsk Archive, located in a suburb of Moscow, and the first challenge was gaining access. She used her connections and went to the archive as an "associate" of an existing organization. Once inside, she spent days going through catalogues, identifying material she wanted to view. Standard procedure required ordering footage three days in advance, then returning to the archives to view it on a flatbed. When it came time to order footage to work with for the rough cut, Hessman would have to mark the footage by wrapping a piece of paper around the in-and-out point she wanted to use. "Sometimes when you got your footage, you knew something had slid when [the guy] was transferring it because it wasn't the exact frame you had marked," she says. "That sort of thing happened all the time."

Most of the time, Hessman worked alone in the archives, and despite the difficulties of threading the flatbed, viewing all the footage and taking frantic notes, she says nothing compares to being in the archives watching the footage herself. If it's a choice between hiring a researcher and doing the work yourself, Hessman recommends the latter. "If there's any possibility, even in the early stages, you can get there yourself, try to get there in a very simple, easy way," she says, recommending that if it's in a country where you don't speak the language, get a fixer, an intern or a film student to guide you through.

"I think it's important to see as much as we can ourselves," says Hessman, explaining that after you've seen a little bit of what the archives have, it's easier to work with a researcher because you have a better sense of what's out there, what you're looking for, and how it will fit into your film. "I think that in working with a researcher, you don't know what you're missing because you're only seeing what someone else who is trying to do their best to interpret your instructions selects," she explains. "Even the best researcher can't know you well enough to know your aesthetic sensibilities, so if there is any logistical and budgetary possibility, try to find a cheap and simple way to at least do some of the early scouting in archives yourself."


Duane Baughman—Bhutto

Duane Baughman's 2010 documentary Bhutto is a historical film that, without access to archival footage, may not have happened. The film is a biography of Benazir Bhutto, the 11th prime minister of Pakistan, who was assassinated in December 2007. Because political material is tightly controlled, one of the greatest challenges for him was gaining access to State TV Archives and vaults that in some cases hadn't been searched in 10 years. "Footage had been under lock and key for years because as dictators come and go, certain things get banned and then they get locked up in vaults in television stations that are run by the state," the filmmaker explains. "You have to go over and sort that stuff out by hand, so that's what we did."

Baughman says there really was no procedure to access the archives; it was more about who you knew. He credits producer Mark Siegel for facilitating the research process in Pakistan. A Los Angeles-based attorney, Siegel was Bhutto's confidante and closest friend in the West, and he had connections in Pakistan. "I can't give enough credit to Mark Siegel for opening the doors to us to President Zadari, who became president six months after we began filming," says Baughman. "Things got immeasurably easier after Benazir's husband became president, and our access was enhanced greatly."

But the most important archival material in Bhutto isn't even the visual footage. Baughman explains that the film was going in a different direction before Siegel recalled that there were audio microcassettes of Bhutto reading her autobiography, stored in an attic somewhere in New England. Baughman and Siegel tracked down the recordings, which changed the course of the film. "We just laid in the audio from start to finish and Benazir basically posthumously tells her own story in a way that I don't think the movie would have been complete without," says Baughman. "To have the audio drive the visual actually gave direction to the film in a way that I don't think anything else could have."

In terms of the visual material, Baughman took his cue from the audio to know what to look for. Because of the age of the archival material, most of the footage was on tape—and most of the really impactful footage came from Pakistan. "I liked the grittiness of the tape," says Baughman, who explains that he and his team opted to use as much of the older footage early on in the film to show the passage of time, beginning with Bhutto's childhood. "The more of the TV footage that I could get, the more of that I wanted to use, as opposed to something that came from a Western news organization or something that might be more in the public square that folks may have seen before," he recalls. "We made a conscious effort to try to bring out things that were prevented or legally locked up by President Zia ul-Haq or by the government in the times that Benazir was in exile."

Baughman and writer/co-director Johnny O'Hara spent several months going through footage in Pakistan. An additional team worked on the archival footage in both Pakistan and the US, but because of the volatile nature of politics in Pakistan, those researchers prefer to remain anonymous. Consequently, few researchers or archival sources are listed in the end credits of the film. "A lot of this stuff is unknown for political reasons," says Baughman. Some TV stations tend to favor the ruling party, while others favor the opposition. "It's a very dangerous game to talk about who helps and who doesn't help," he continues. "A lot of folks like to remain anonymous. There are a lot of people who deserve a lot of credit, who just didn't want it."

Noting the irony, Baughman reflects, "You know how hard people struggle for a credit; in this case there were a lot of people who were struggling to protect themselves. It's a real conundrum because they're extremely talented people and they were some of the more effective of the litany of folks that I worked with."


Malik Bendjelloul—Searching for Sugar Man

Searching for Sugar Man, Malik Bendjelloul's Oscar-nominated film and winner of the IDA's 2012 Best Feature Award, is about Detroit-based folk musician Sixto Rodriguez and the attempts of two South African fans to track him down. Rodriguez never made it big in the United States, but he was enormously popular in Cape Town, South Africa—decades before he even found out about his fame there. Rodriguez' soulful ballads and socio-political observations resonated with "anti-establishment" South Africans during the Apartheid era.

The Sweden-based Bendjelloul needed images of both Detroit and South Africa, which required him to cast his net far and wide in search of archival footage. He went to the archives at Swedish National TV as a sort of bellwether to see what was out there. "I'm sure there are those kinds of archives in every country but you have to go to the archives and search and it's easier to go to the archive in your own country," says Bendjelloul. He found excellent footage of both South Africa and Detroit in the Swedish National TV Archive, and Searching for Sugar Man features footage of houses in the Detroit area shot in the '60s and '70s by Swedish journalists on assignment in the US.

Bendjelloul then traveled to several different archives and libraries in Detroit, but even there his attempts to find local footage from the same time period was challenging because many of the shots he found were too short. But after an extensive search, he found what he was looking for: a minute-long street scene of Woodward Avenue. That shot is featured at the beginning of the film.

The search for South African footage proved to be more challenging for the filmmaker. When he was researching there in 2010, the archives were expensive to access and it was difficult to acquire viewing copies of the footage. Bendjelloul turned to Internet archives such as and With much of the same footage as the more expensive archives, he says it was convenient to download it directly to his computer and use it immediately at a fraction of the cost of footage from the TV stations. What's more, some online archives include public domain footage.

State archives are a great resource when it comes to documenting historic events such as accidents, wars and political upheaval, but Bendjelloul wanted footage of South Africa in which nothing happens and people were just "living their lives. When people said, ‘Rodriguez was the soundtrack to our lives,' I wanted to portray that life," he explains. "I wanted to see what that life looked like, and it was hard to get a hold of those kind of private images."

So Bendjelloul asked Sugar, one of the subjects in the film who helped find Rodriguez, to post an ad in his record shop asking if anyone had homemade Super-8 footage from the '60s, '70s or '80s. "And then one day this girl said that her grandfather had given her these piles of reels with all this great stuff," Bendjelloul recalls. "I started looking at it and it was just this fantastic stuff, and she said, ‘You can have it!' I paid her a thousand rand [about $110] and sent her copies of it. It was wonderful to have maybe 15 hours of archival stuff that I was so grateful that I got."

Putting it all together was a great joy, he says Bendjelloul. "I edited for more than a thousand days," he recalls. The film went through many incarnations, incorporating concert footage taken by Rodriguez's family, footage from state archival holdings and home movies from the '70s, all accompanied by Rodriguez's powerful songs, which underscored the passion and yearning of "regular" South Africans to break out of their restricted lives.


Archival footage can truly bring a story alive, animating it with raw emotion. It's worth the effort to seek this material out. Even in more restrictive countries, with persistence and creativity, a filmmaker can uncover a trove of rich and illuminating images.  


Laura Almo is a writer and documentary filmmaker. She teaches video editing at El Camino College in Torrance, California, and is a frequent contributor to CineMontage. She is contributing editor with Documentary Magazine, and can be reached at