This is the latest entry in our Archives + Audiences series, which features the perspectives of archival audiences – scholars, journalists, filmmakers, artists, activists, and more – for whom archives have been an important part of their life and work. In this post, we feature Part 2 of COPA member Nick Pavlik’s conversation with Dan Lindsay and Ben Piner about their work on the acclaimed documentary LA 92, which examines the 1992 Rodney King protests in Los Angeles entirely through archival footage. Lindsay co-directed the film, while Piner was a producer and archival researcher for the project. Remarks have been edited for length and clarity from a transcript of the original telephone interview.
NP: Are there any other major challenges that stand out to you, separate from the ones you’ve already referenced?
BP: Just from the acquisition and licensing side, the one that comes to mind was when, about halfway or maybe three quarters of the way through the post-production, we got wind that CBS had applied a new restriction on raw footage. And with the emphasis that we had on raw footage, that we had already cut in minutes and minutes of that content [into the film], that was a major alarm for us. And we ended up having to take some very significant proactive measures in order to try and claw back the content that we had taken for granted as being available, and pay them for it and include it in the film. I just remember, in actually clearing footage [generally], there were many little things that could threaten a piece of footage’s viability. And when you start to think about that over the course of an entirely archival film, it was just a real bear to get it out the door.
NP: Yes, I can imagine!
DL: Now I think about the “aha” moments. When I think of the progress that has been made, in terms of digitizing stuff and making things searchable on databases online, I don’t think there is a world in which we would have been able to make this film fifteen years ago. It just wouldn’t have been possible to pay to create screeners for all these things, and to be able to search the archives the way that we have. It’s something that TJ [Martin] and I have talked about. I think this form of documentary filmmaking is going to just become more and more prevalent as technology progresses. Not only on the side of us as community members [increasingly] filming our own lives, but also in terms of being able to digitize a lot of this stuff, and make it searchable in databases so it’s not so cumbersome to try to go through what exists. I think that’s really exciting as a filmmaker. So, hats off to the archivists in the world that do the work to actually preserve that stuff.
BP: That’s a good takeaway too. The level of appreciation you feel when an archivist can deliver a moment in the archive for the film. It’s a lot of years between [the creation of footage] and making sure that it’s something that can be sent in a WeTransfer link, for instance. We try not to take it for granted. It’s an interesting combination of being frustrated and also being grateful for what exists.
NP: That’s certainly gratifying to hear as an archivist, and I certainly hope we see more films of this type and of this caliber. They really are shining a light on that raw footage, things that have never actually seen any commercial broadcast before and really get to the heart of the stories. The footage in your film is really disturbing, powerful, and heartwarming all at the same time. And it’s just really amazing stuff that I feel most people have never seen before in relation to the Rodney King events.
DL: The other thing that comes to mind, in terms of what the future looks like and these types of films, is that I think there are going to be interesting moral questions that will present themselves. In terms of, like you said, things that were not broadcast, moments in between interviews, when maybe the subject isn’t really aware that they’re [on film]. I think now we have a better awareness of when we’re being filmed and when we’re not. There’s less of an understanding of privacy. But when you go back to something in the mid ’90s or late ’90s, and it is that raw, really human moment that says something about us as human beings but maybe that particular person wouldn’t want to be used. I think there are going to be a lot of interesting questions that will arise out of those decisions that both filmmakers and archivists will have to make, making judgments in that regard.
NP: Yes, absolutely. In the latter half of the twentieth century, up until the social media explosion, video and film were heavily in use as a medium of course, but as you said, there wasn’t that expectation necessarily that the product of that film or video would ever be made public. Whereas now, it’s almost a given that we’re all just expecting, “certainly this is going to wind up online somehow.”
BP: One last thing – just thinking about what made the film work in the way it did, I think we’d be remiss not to bring up the role that the score played and how it was married with the archival footage in a way that had a lot of intention. The composers and directors worked really hard on that piece of it. The footage itself was compelling, but I think without the score to accompany it, it was a really different experience, obviously. That’s true for any film, but I think it’s especially true for LA 92.
NP: That’s a great point. The score was fantastic.
BP: It augmented the archive in a way that I didn’t really appreciate until I saw it in its finished form.
NP: Do you have any tips or advice for other documentarians or filmmakers utilizing archival footage in their films?
BP: I would just go back to, from the acquisition standpoint, just [building] relationships, thinking of these archives and the people who run them as people and treating them respectfully and having gratitude for what they’re doing, needing to go out of their way, of what their normal day might be, to field these kinds of requests. At the end of the day, that just paid off over the long haul. And I think that if relationships are one of the top pieces – instead of just thinking about giving me what I want, thinking about it more in the terms of collaboration with the archives – I feel like that’s appreciated, and it’s this build on itself to a place where you can get further than you could if you didn’t prioritize it.
DL: I think on a creative side, the one thing that pops up in my mind is having personal responsibility for what you’re going to use, to not use stuff just because it’s provocative, and to know that your duty is to tell a story that is hopefully enlightening something about us as people, not just for shock value. It’s irresponsible if that’s all you care about. Again, some of this footage is captured without people necessarily knowing that it’s going to be later used in a film. Just keep that in mind as you’re progressing forward.
NP: Is there anything else you would like to share about your experience doing archival research or using archival footage in LA 92?
DL: I think the recognition of the people that go out of their way to save things and preserve things, because the history of our civilization is wrapped up in our artifacts. And to be able to have more and more of those primary resources, I think, just allows us to learn more about ourselves, to hopefully have our history inform the current time that we live in. I think the recognition of the people that do that is really important. I had that appreciation before we made the film, but it’s definitely grown as a result of making it.
Dan Lindsay is an Oscar and Emmy winning director of documentary films. Along with his directing partner TJ Martin, Lindsay’s films include Undefeated, which won the 2012 Academy Award for Best Feature Length Documentary, and LA 92, winner of the 2017 Prime-time Emmy for Exceptional Merit in Documentary Filmmaking. They are currently in production on a feature length documentary on the life and career of Tina Turner, which is scheduled for release from HBO in 2020.
Ben Piner is a documentary producer and archival researcher. In addition to LA 92, his most recent credits include the Netflix Documentary Series’ Flint Town and Dogs. He is currently co-producing an upcoming HBO feature-length documentary on Tina Turner.