Recalling a Collective Past

Recalling a Collective Past:

Musical Sequences in Compilation Films

Iván Villarmea Álvarez



I am particularly interested in documentaries which portray a period, place or community through a subjective approach, and I have noticed that some documentary makers use musical sequences to turn their personal experiences into collective memories. I would like to link this device with two ideas.

First, collective memory has become one of the main topics of documentary since the subjective turn of the genre. Now, documentary makers usually belong to the communities depicted, and their own personal experiences are the subject of their films. They have realized that if they use first-person narratives and an autobiographical approach, they can increase the audience’s involvement.

Second, music stimulates shared memories in an emotional way. For example, musical underscores have always been used to enhance the most intense sequences, and popular songs help us to identify certain historical periods. Those are the simplest uses of music in film, but the soundtrack can also work as a narrative element. In that case, music does not accompany the images, but contrasts with them. Documentaries that use music as commentary on their images are the best example.

Musical sequences remember the collective past in a nostalgic or critical way, and that depends on the dialectic between what the images show and what the music suggests. I prefer the critical proposals because I find them more useful to think about the past, so I have chosen to compare two documentaries from different periods and countries that offer new interpretations on archival images through musical commentary.

My first case study is Canciones para después de una guerra (Basilio Martín Patino, Spain, 1976), a compilation film that describes the social atmosphere after the Spanish Civil War through the contrast of real images with popular songs of the 1940s. This documentary was originally edited in 1971, but censorship did not allow its release until 1976, probably because its director used the official image of the Franco regime to develop a historical counter-analysis of the dictatorship.

Similarly, my second case study, Of Time and the City (Terence Davies, United Kingdom, 2008), also criticizes the past through the dialectic between archival footage and popular songs. In this case, the past recalled is the cityscape of the Liverpool’s working-class neighbourhoods during the 1940s and 1950s, but this documentary adds an explicit autobiographical dimension to the social portrait.

Both films are collective accounts of the past. Canciones para después de una guerra is already subjective in its editing and opinions, but it is not as personal in its discourse as Of Time and the City. The formal device is quite similar, but their cultural meaning has changed. Therefore, the aim of my paper is to analyze how the use of musical sequences has evolved over the last decades, taking into account the subjective turn of performative documentaries.


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