Found Footage films: a strong case against representation?

The paradox of representation is as old as modernity’s rational turn at the dawn of the French revolution. Peter Tscherkassky notes that when art emerged from the dusk of Classicism into a more autonomous form, slowly starting to question the ‚why‘ and ‚how‘ of aesthetic conventions, it’s representative role was starting to dissolve. [1] He writes:

“Liberated from the catalog of artistic regulations, the function of representation was incrementally abandoned: Art steadily began to develop in a direction of increasing abstraction”.

Modern art and indeed modern cinema has grappled with the paradox of representation and has tried to fight it’s lingering spectre. But can cinema really free itself completely from the malaise of representation? Is it only a constant struggle and if so, what form of cinema has resisted most valiantly?
While conventional fiction and documentary films have tackled representation within the confines of the frame, experimental films have done so at the realm of the film-surface/projection introducing/allowing a heterogeneity of meaning by simultaneously obliterating a singular relationship between an image – the signifier and it’s signification. And yet, are these efforts merely anti-representational in their primary impulse? What happens to the reality at which the camera is oriented? Peter Gidal notes:

“There is the representational ‚reality‘ one is aiming the camera at. This remains true even if the representational content is pared down to the filmstrip itself being pulled through the printer. In fact this isn’t necessarily a paring down at all” [2]

The above is perceived under the assumption that aiming the camera and filmstrip being pulled through the printer are part of a singular continuous process of film production where the two acts are merely different stages of production. But what if the ‚reality‘ of the person aiming the camera is abstracted from the person pulling the filmstrip though the printer by a spatial and temporal dislocation? This brings us to the curious case of Found Footage and it’s relationship with representation.

Both found and archival footage has been extensively used within the larger pantheon of experimental cinema to uncover cached synergies within these footage. From the onset it is important to make a clear distinction between Found Footage and what is known as Archival Footage with an emphasis on the word ‚found‘. A clear distinction often overlooked, while archival footage is the historic testament deemed important by institutions and hence culture (for example the colonial archives of Britain), the ‚found‘ footage is the discarded bits deemed unimportant, the waste, the extra, perhaps industrially expired film stock that can be literally collected from streets, the garbage bins, personal collections or junk stores. The ‚found‘ footage is non-indexed and thus, there is a possibility of stumbling upon it without the prior knowledge of it’s production history. The representational reality of the found film is therefore either obfuscated or even obliterated since the one handling the film is now partially aware/unaware of the ‚reality‘ at which the camera was previously aimed at. The question I am pondering upon is whether Found Footage film can be purely the representation of the image producing apparatus, the camera and production of the film stock and nothing else?  William C. Wees has discussed in considerable length the questions of representation in the context of Found Footage in 1992 [3] where he presents the classical case for modes of anti-representation in the process of working with Found Footage in the true vein of any modern art. But do Found Footage films make the strongest case for anti-representation even within structuralist/materialist practices of experimental filmmaking which is consciously revolting against the illusionary nature of time in films?

Film/Spricht/Viele/Sprachen von Gustav Deutsch
Film/Spricht/Viele/Sprachen von Gustav Deutsch
Film/Spricht/Viele/Sprachen von Gustav Deutsch
Film/Spricht/Viele/Sprachen von Gustav Deutsch

In this context, I would like to look at two films closely. These films are of particular interest within the context of this discussion precisely because in one case the notion of ‚found‘ is underscored and in the other, clear economic constraints regulate the choice of used film stock.
In a discussion with Scott MacDonald, Gustav Deutsch reveals how he stumbled upon the 35 mm reels of a popular Bombay film while taking a walk on the Boulevard Sidi Mohammed Ben Abdallah in Casablanca [4] that eventually became Film/Spricht/Viele/Sprachen and was used for the trailer of Viennale in 1995 (for the curious head, this was Mohan Kumar directed Amir Garib starring popular film stars in India, Dev Anand and Hema Malini). The intriguing part here is the element of chance that prevails over a conscious decision in the sense that though Deutsch decided to use this footage once the opportunity of the Viennale trailer presented itself, the physical presence of the film was realised as a matter of chance, an accident. The act of aiming the camera at a subject has been abstracted, the ‚reality‘ dislocated, what remains is the reality of the film bearing the imprints of time.

Storm De Hirsch speaking of her short film Divinations in an interview with Jonas Mekas recounts:

“…I wanted badly to make an animated short and had no camera available. I did have some old unused film stock and several rolls of 16 mm sound tape. So I used that – plus a variety of discarded surgical instruments and the sharp edge of a screwdriver – by cutting, etching, and painting directly on both film and tape.” [5]

This is an instance where the possibility of aiming the camera and shooting something is limited by economic constraints, hence used/available film stock have to suffice. The two examples are presented to underline the axes of chance and viability within the Found Footage film tradition that in the least help to add a layer of abstraction between the representational ‚reality‘ and the finished film, a further step away from the reproduction of the dominant order of the world, an anti-representation that is at worst is the representation of the process that produces the image.

Divinations von Storm de Hirsch
Divinations von Storm de Hirsch
Divinations von Storm de Hirsch
Divinations von Storm de Hirsch



[1] Peter Tscherkassky, “The Framework of Modernity. Some concluding remarks on cinema and modernism”, translated by Eve Heller, in: id. (Ed.), Film Unframed. A History of Austrian Avant-Garde Cinema, 2012, p. 311-316.

[2] Peter Gidal, “Theory and Definition of Structural/Materialist Film”, first published in Studio International 190/978, November/December 1975.

[3] William C. Wees, “Found Footage and Questions of Representation”, in: Cecilia Hausheer and Christoph Settele (Ed.), Found Footage film, 1992, p. 37-53.

[4] Scott MacDonald, “A conversation with Gustav Deutsch (Part 1)”, in: Wilbirg Brainin-Donnenberg and Michael Loebenstein (Ed.), Gustav Deutsch, 2009, p. 64-94.

[5] Jonas Mekas, “An interview with Storm De Hirsch, July 19, 1964,”, in: id., Movie Journal: The rise of New America 1959-1971, p.155-157.