Michael Moore and the use of archival footage

Written by: Alice Locatelli

When we talk about media archaeology, we refer to a phenomenon that “has been interested in excavating the past in order to understand the present and the future” (Parikka, 2013, 2). Moreover, to better understand how media archaeology is used today, the same Parikka tries to give us an explanation:

Media archaeology has never been a pure academic endeavour, but […] has also been a field in which media artists have been able to use themes, ideas and inspiration from past media too in order to investigate what the newness in “new media” means.

In film history, this phenomenon is reflected in the use of what is sometimes called the “compilation” or the “archive” film.

If we look for examples of “media archaeological arts” in film history, we can find the use of archive material in movies in several cases, in particular in documentaries, a genre that since the 60s used archival (or “compilation”) footage and found material to accompany the sequences shot for the film. In recent years, many movies – fiction and documentaries – used this type of sequences in addition to the narrative. An example of contemporary film that incorporates archival footage is Bowling for Columbine, by Michael Moore.


The movie is about the dramatic shooting occurred in 1999 at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colorado, perpetrated by two students, and it is also a strong critic towards the American system of regulation for the use and sell of guns. The strategy of Moore is to mix interviews made by himself with sequences from other sources, like news, trailers, scenes from movies, cartoons, and archival footage.

In the following sequence, for example, the director tries to reconstruct the American military history through archival footage, accompanied by captions which explain what we are watching and with a soundtrack that makes a strong contrast with the images, the song What a Wonderful World. Thanks to the editing of this sequence, the audience can relive directly something that happened in the past, in a way that stimulates a sense of empathy and involvement.

In this case, the archival footage is used to recall a determined period of time in order to explain how did US get to the point in which two teenage boys were able to walk into a shop and buy a gun. Moore uses the footage to prove a point and to sustain his argument, also with the intent of gaining the sympathy of the audience.


Parikka, Jussi (2013). What is Media Archaeology? Cambridge, UK: Polity Press.

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