Hiding in Plain Sight: Archives and Popular Culture

Archivists on the Issues is a forum for archivists to discuss the issues we are facing today. Today’s post comes from a new regular writer for I&A’s blog, Cate Peebles. Cate is the NDSR Art fellow at the Yale Center for British Art, where she works with permanent-collection-related born-digital records. 

Lately there have been rumblings on the internet regarding the deadness and/or dying of the library and archival professions, which is nothing new, but it strikes me as a particularly myopic death knell considering the omnipresence of records-related headlines (emails, JFK, cyber-attacks, etc…) and the ongoing relevance of archival work, both traditional and digital. The professions are changing, as the nature of information creation and sharing changes, but our work and ideals remain crucial to a society that values the open exchange of ideas.

Since beginning my career as an archivist in 2015, I have developed a heightened awareness of the proliferation of archives, “the archive,” and archival documents represented in popular culture. I can’t binge watch my way through the latest Netflix series without at least once hitting an imaginary buzzer on the couch and yelling “Archives!” to anyone (or no one) who happens to be next to me. But at the same time, there is also something—or someone—missing in these moments of recognition: the archivist. Where are we in the popular imagination? The results of our work are everywhere, yet representations of actual archivists are few and far between. Of course, it is traditional in our profession to be behind the scenes and to leave no trace once we have “shuffle[d] the damn papers” (O’Toole, 1993).

This has led me to wonder about the role of the archivist in society, how we are seen or ignored, and how our work is vital to so many creative pursuits beyond the expected use of archival sources by historians. Archival materials are used by poets, visual artists, and filmmakers to deepen their work and as “the narrative marrow and aesthetic backbone” (Paletz, 2013) of their pieces.  In this post, I will explore one popular genre that notably relies on archives: the true crime documentary.

Beginning with Errol Morris’s seminal film, The Thin Blue Line (1987), modern true crime documentaries place records in a starring role alongside interviewees; these records are narratively and aesthetically significant.  In the last couple of years, such films have been everywhere: Making a Murderer, The Jinx, Serial (podcast), OJ; Made in America, and The Keepers, to name a few, and new titles continue to appear (such as Morris’s new film Wormwood).  

This notable trend builds upon a literary genre that has been popular for centuries—the crime serial—and modernizes it with an emphasis on theatrical legal drama (Silbey, 2010), records, and recordkeeping. The visual power of records is matched by their power to effect real change in the lives of the films’ subjects. In the case of Morris’s subject Randall Dale Adams in The Thin Blue Line, his exoneration came about as a result of the film; we see this happening again with The Jinx, the Paradise Lost trilogy, and the podcast Serial, which establishes a strong link between filmmakers’ use of archival resources and criminal justice causes that result in activism.

And with the proliferation of sources available online and in various media, filmmakers have access to materials beyond newsreels and photographs. Taking center screen in many of these true crime films are: home movies, cell phone records, police documents, interview transcripts, handwriting samples, and police interviews with suspects (custodial interviews).

In film, as in other visual media, records carry symbolic weight (O’Toole, 1993). In each of the docu-series discussed here, records constitute much of what is seen on screen. Having “gained independence from its conventional role as historical wallpaper” (Paletz, 2013), archival footage, and footage of archival materials, now drives the action.

Unlike the traditional guts and gore we have come to expect from crime stories, records convey a familiar, quotidian side of human logic that contrasts the inherent sensationalism of the genre. Records, representing truth, drive visual narrative and on-screen action; they also provide the viewer with access to potential answers and a satisfying resolution.

 

Examples of archives in pop culture includes:

The Jinx (HBO, directed by Andrew Jarecki, 2015)

Estranged real estate heir, Robert Durst, is the central figure in three murder cases: his wife, his neighbor, and his best friend, Susan Berman. His story is bizarre and ongoing. Oddly, it was Durst himself who approached Jarecki and offered access to his personal papers (3). Each episode presents records used to further the story in a variety of ways: 

  • Reenactments based on crime scene photos
  • Handwriting samples
  • Highlighted interview transcripts
  • Newspapers, crime photos, tabloids.

The crux of this series, and the subsequent re-arrest of Robert Durst, lies in the unearthing of a handwritten note from Durst to victim Susan Berman found in the personal papers kept by her stepson, Sareb Kaufman. Kaufman serves as a kind of amateur “citizen archivist” or keeper of records that link Durst to the murder of Susan Berman.

The Jinx, which is full of interviews and oral history interviews, is itself a new record of the crimes it represents, documenting the relationship between filmmaker and subject along with the subject’s continued role as suspect. The film is a well-constructed result of careful research and Jarecki credits many archival sources at the end of each episode.

Making a Murderer (Netflix, directed by Moira Demos and Laura Ricciardi, 2015)

Created over 10 years, this series explores the life and trials of Steven Avery, a man convicted of murder and exonerated after 18 years in prison in 2003, only to be arrested and convicted of murder again in 2007. Many questions arise regarding the Wisconsin criminal justice system and local police department’s handling of Avery’s case(s) and that of his nephew, Brendan Dassey. The film’s focus on the legal system and court room activity also highlights the importance of evidentiary records over time and the need for adequate stewardship of legal and public records.

Pivotal use of records in the series includes:

  • Possible evidence tampering, case files and police evidence
  • Cell phone metadata
  • Police interviews and custodial interrogations
  • Court and police dept. documents

The filmmakers use of documents and police footage led to the overturned conviction of Brendan Dassey after his pre-arrest police interviews were found to show a coerced confession (Almasy, 2016). Like The Jinx, this series is a compilation of many years’ research and is itself documentation of Wisconsin’s criminal justice system and the Avery family.

The Keepers (Netflix, directed by Ryan White, 2017)

These clues to what [the past] was linger on in a place like this attic. These objects hold energy…Tom Nugent, Journalist, “The Keepers”

This is a series as much about memory as it is about solving a long-cold case. As the title suggests, its protagonists are keepers of memory, truth-seekers and literal stewards, collecting stories related to the murder of their teacher, Sister Cathy Cesnik. They also investigate the role of the Diocese of Baltimore in covering up sexual abuse at area schools.

The Keepers taps into what it means to steward ephemeral fragments of a larger story, delving into the psychology of memory, abuse survival, and the emotional work of recordkeeping.

Led by a team of citizen researcher-archivists and advocates, the women at the center of this series “went into this collecting information…every bit of scrap…every story” seeking answers where the absence of records leaves an endless trail of questions.  

 

Film invigorates archival records, inviting new eyes and reinterpretation. Records participate in the narratives and underpin the criminal justice causes and retrials instigated by these series.

These documentaries highlight records as active participants in ongoing investigations rather than mere static referents—but they do not rise magically from nowhere. Archival records, both analog and digital, require ongoing stewardship and preservation if they are to remain accessible to creators and researchers. We see stacks of papers and boxes pulled from shelves, but actual archives and archivists are often absent. There is no “popular” image of an archivist and yet we are more present than ever, however unseen we may be. Without records and their keepers, there are no stories to tell.

Other Viewing and Listening
  • The Thin Blue Line (Morris, 1988)
  • Serial (Koenig, 2014- )
  • Capturing the Friedmans (Jarecki, 2003)
  • OJ: Made in America (Edelman, 2016)
  • Paradise Lost Trilogy (Berlinger and Sinofsky, 1996-2011)

 

References

Almasy, Steve. ‘Making a Murderer’: Brendan Dassey conviction overturned. CNN.com, August 12, 2016.

Bagli, Charles V.; Yee, Vivian. On HBO’s ‘The Jinx’ Robert Durst Says He ‘Killed them all’. The New York Times, March 15, 2015.

O’Toole, James. The Symbolic Significance of Archives. The American Archivist, 1993. 234-255 

Palatz, Gabriel, “The Archives in Contemporary Documentary,” POV 83 (Fall 2011), available at http://povmagazine.com/articles/view/the-archive-in-contemporary-documentary

Silbey, Jessica M., Evidence Verité and the Law of Film (April 24, 2010). Cardozo Law Review, Vol. 31, No. 4, pp. 1257-1299, 2010; Suffolk University Law School Research Paper No. 10-23

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