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Archival Voyeurism

Updated: May 8, 2020

An extract from Jaimie Baron's The Archive Effect: Appropriation Films and the Experience of History:

Since the beginning of cinema, filmmakers have appropriated previously shot visuals, and later audiovisual, documents and recontextualised them into their own films for various outcomes. Because these documents have generally derived from official state or commercial film archives, they have come to be referred to as "archival documents." Endowed with the sanction of an official archive, archival documents have largely been accepted as having an amplified truth value, particularly as "evidence" of the historical past. In recent years, however, the objectivity and authority of archival documents has been put into question, and faith in the archive as a comprehensive source of objective evidence has become problematic. Moreover, unofficial gatherings of audiovisual documents have increasingly replaced official archives as sources for appropriation. Indeed, filmmakers now have access to various kinds of unofficial archives-- from home movie collections to online databases--and this has altered both the kinds of documents that are being appropriated and the functions these documents serve as they are repurposed in new films.
Indeed, the very definition of the "archival document" has undergone a fundamental shift. At stake in this shift is a changing evaluation of what constitutes historical evidence about the past. "The Archive Effect: Appropriation Films and the Experience of History," examines various ways in which filmmakers have selected and mobilised archival documents in the service of representing the historical past as well as responses to these appropriations. Reformulating the notion of "the archival document" as a spectatorial experience or, more precisely, a relationship between viewer and text, I contend that certain audiovisual documents produce for the viewer what I call the "archive effect" as they are appropriated into new texts and that this encounter endows these documents with a particular kind of authority as "evidence"; particularly historical evidence. I engage a range of works that include documentaries, mockumentaries, and experimental films and suggest that by looking at the act of appropriation and the experience of the archive effect as they occur across these genres, we may be better able to account for the complicated status of the archival document--and, hence, of history--in the contemporary world. Throughout the dissertation, I explore the fundamental ontological, epistemological, and historiographic questions raised by the presence and function of archival documents in appropriation films. My first chapter delimits a genre of films that I refer to collectively as "appropriation films," which produce in the viewer an "archive effect"--a sense that certain documents within them come from another time or place within which they served a different function. I suggest that irony is the constitutive trope of the archival document since the very experience of the archive effect is dependent on an experience of multiple possible contexts of reception and, therefore, possible meanings.
The second chapter examines the way in which appropriations of certain documents such as "home movies" trouble the line between public and private as they are repurposed in appropriation films. Indeed, I contend that these appropriations entail a certain form of ethical transgression that I refer to as "archival voyeurism." The third chapter explores the demonstrated desire to believe in the authenticity and evidentiary authority of archival documents--even though we know the signs of the archive effect can easily be "faked"--and the corollary suspicion of iconic archival images, especially those used over and over again, that seem--at least to some--to have "too much" authority (for instance, the images of the first moon landing). The fourth chapter engages the question of how archival documents act as metonyms that stand in for larger historical truths producing not a "meaning" of the past but rather an affective sense of its "presence," which I refer to as the "archive affect." And the final chapter explores what I refer to as the "digital archive effect," examining the ways in which documents derived from digital archives such as YouTube are being recontextualised in appropriation films as well as how documents from the material archive are being appropriated into digital texts such as databases narratives and video games. Through the exploration of this wide range of texts, I suggest that the notion of the archive effect may serve as a means of critically examining our conceptions of historical "truth," reframing them in terms of a shifting and unstable experience constituted through our particular encounters with the traces of the past.

It is Baron's concept archival voyeurism that interests me most, and whilst scouring the online archives for home movies, I felt a strange level of intrusion and voyeurism. In Chapter 3, titled, “Archival Voyeurism,” Baron examines films that appropriate home movies in order to narrate highly personal historical experiences, proposing that these films further expand the definition of an archival document by transforming originally private images into public documentary evidence. Archival Gaze, (Anderson, 2007): archival records are also a kind of spectacle, encouraging temporal pleasure in which the people caught in the archival records are spread before the researcher in the present, who subjects them to interrogative research. The historical subjects are made to re-perform snippets of activities and moments from their lives under scrutiny so that the viewer/researcher can observe and draw conclusions from this performance.

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