Sometimes, one of our new clients will sheepishly admit that their organization hasn’t kept particularly good records of the last, say, 50 years of their existence. Forget about a formal archives program, that’s the least of their problems. They don’t have photos of employee events, their scrapbooks are missing, a great box of old newsreels and artifacts was lost in a fire, and all information on their founder is gone with the wind. All they have is a bunch of boring papers and some overly-technical data that most people won’t ever care about.
We say: “Hey, it’s a start!”
Aside from my work with The History Factory, in my post–day job hours I teach an undergraduate screenwriting class called “Screenwriting for Shoestring Budgets,” which focuses on low-budget techniques. Whether the goal is a dynamic but inexpensive corporate communications program or a low-budget work of art, there are some wonderful examples I use to convince my students of how much can be done with just a little raw material.
Chicago 10: Speak Your Peace is an elucidating yet wildly entertaining documentary about the protests and trials surrounding the 1968 Democratic National Convention. Director Brett Morgen (see The Kid Stays in the Picture for another great example of raw materials in action) frames the story of counterculture dissent around the landmark Chicago Seven case of 1969. What’s amazing, and somewhat revolutionary, is that no archival film footage or other visual evidence exists for this case. The film uses plenty of archival news footage to show what’s going on outside the courtroom, but for the case itself all we have is the court transcript. A bunch of boring papers.
Using a hybrid mixture of animation (by Curious Pictures, Yowza Animation, and Asterisk), voice-acting (Nick Nolte, Mark Ruffalo, Roy Scheider, and the always brilliant Hank Azaria give life to the verbatim transcript), and archival audio (mostly taken from post-courtroom telephone calls from Abbie Hoffman to the WBAI radio station back East), the director creates a compelling and even seamless portrait of the particular zeitgeist of the time and its courtroom microcosm that displays judicial arrogance at its most theatrical.
The events themselves are stranger than fiction (Black Panther Party chairman Bobby Seale bound and gagged in the courtroom for requesting to defend himself), and the directorial decisions bring life to otherwise inert words on a page. What might have been lost to the ages is instead made modern, digestible, informative, and emotionally resonant for a wide-ranging audience. Add to the courtroom drama a liberal dose of striking archival film and unearthed news footage of events at the Democratic National Convention, and you’ve got quite an entertaining and intense movie.
Far more intense, and far less “entertaining,” is William Gazecki’s Waco: The Rules of Engagement, an enlightening (and horrific) exposé of the events surrounding the 1993 stand-off between the powers-that-be and David Koresh’s Branch Davidians. Using a wide range of archival material—documents, letters, personal testimonies, audio files, news clips, and footage from the Congressional hearings that ensued—Waco comes across more as a nuanced legal argument than a film, yet the results are no less riveting (in fact, the film was nominated for an Academy Award).
If you don’t know the story, and only vaguely remember the 51-day stand-off between “cult leader” David Koresh and a veritable legion of ATF/FBI heavy artillery, see the events again with fresh eyes. While the film is certainly biased against the government agencies, what’s most striking is its use of highly technical infrared (IR) footage taken from surveillance planes. While the footage itself is crude, the guiding narration and explanation from IR experts uncovers the nuance in the pixels, making us want to watch short, highly technical video clips over and over again. The film contains some startlingly awful and gruesome images of the aftermath of Waco, almost making me wish they hadn’t archived quite so much.
Waco, perhaps, is a study in how crucial it can be to document important events, as well as how a wide variety of raw materials can, with the right storytelling, be transformed into…well, raw materials. Raw like intense, exposed, sensitive. It is also the ultimate argument on why it’s so important to own the elements of your own story. Because if you don’t tell your own story, someone else will use the same raw materials to tell it their own way.
Depending on the type of story you want to tell, a few carefully chosen documents, photos, audio files, and video clips can be wildly useful assets for organizations in their own corporate storytelling efforts. In the hands of skilled storytellers, entertainment, information, and emotional resonance can be transmitted from even the sparsest starting points.