Nelson Mandela Foundation

Still from Netflix's Archive 81

The Archive 81 Netflix series is “a wonderfully creepy ode to film restoration”, says Leah Schnelbach*.

The eight-episode series is centred around a collection of tapes damaged in a fire. A film-archivist who works at the Museum of Moving Pictures in New York, Dan Turner, is recruited to restore the tapes and digitise them to recover the lost information that could lead to uncovering the cause of a fire that killed the inhabitants of the Visser building in 1994. The story takes on a dual narrative, one of the archivist Dan Turner, who restores the tapes and uncovers the story; and the other of the graduate, Melody Pendras, the creator of the tapes for an oral history project who perished in the 1994 fire. The show alternates between two time zones until they become fused in later episodes as the story becomes more ominous.

What is unique about the series is that there are different types of recordings used to tell the story. The damaged tapes, audio recordings, old projector movies and video recordings that is perfectly curated to create an atmosphere to draw you into the story. Even the Visser building is an artefact where Melody made the recordings.

The series speaks to the meticulous and often laborious work done by archivist when Dan puts on his white cotton gloves to start restoration on the fire damaged tapes. There is an appreciation for the process involved that leads up to revealing more information about what happened to Melody. Each episode is introduced with archival footage or an artefact that is related to upcoming events, which creates mystery and suspense, and you find yourself googling the history jargon and artefacts. It also uses time as a flexible entity moving the characters that are in different periods into dimensions where they interact, which touches on the themes of past and present.

 The series creates awareness around the work done by archivist, film archivist and historians and gives relevance to their work in the digital era. It makes documentation important and interesting, and I think will convert one or two young people to study archives.

Piece by Leah Schnelbach