Archives in the Movies: Cloud Atlas
Updated: Aug 20
[Content and Trigger Warnings for Yellowface]
I put off writing this one for a while. One, because when I first entertained the idea of writing it the Black Lives Matter protests began over George Floyd's death by the Minneapolis police and it just seemed in poor taste to post something that had its own racial insensitivity baked into its core. And two, a white woman talking about issues of racial insensitivity is its own can of worms. The last thing I want to do is accidentally offend anyone while trying to talk about the issue of archival representation that is the central theme of this website.
But, here we are, Cloud Atlas is a movie and it features an archivist, and this draft has been sitting in my queue waiting for me to start again. So, let's get started.
To begin: DON'T DO YELLOWFACE! If you're thinking about doing yellowface or including it in your movie, television show, whatever, then it's a bad idea and you should feel bad for thinking of it in the first place. The same goes for blackface, redface, and brownface. I cannot stress how wrong it is to have white actors and actresses, in any modern day Hollywood film, dressing up like they're fucking John Wayne in The Conqueror and think it's okay. It's not okay and it never was okay!
Are we clear? Good, fine, let's talk about the Archivist in Cloud Atlas.
Directed by the Wachowski sisters, Cloud Atlas (2012) is a film adaptation of the eponymous book by David Mitchell. The film is essentially about a traveling soul reincarnated across multiple lifetimes and eras, from the 1800s to the far-flung post-apocalyptic future. Within each reincarnation, however, aspects of the former lives play some part via writings, music, media, and philosophy. To further drive the point home about the resonance of connection, or the "continuity of the soul" as defined by the filmmakers, the main cast of characters all appear in each era/story in some capacity - usually with the help of additional makeup and prosthetics.
As a concept, I like the idea. Using movie makeup to transform your actors isn't a new avenue of storytelling. One of the first movies to do so was The List of Adrian Messenger (1963) wherein the actors - including George C. Scott, Kirk Douglas, Frank Sinatra, and Burt Lancaster - played multiple roles within the murder mystery as a means of showing the transformative narrative potential of movie makeup. Or a cheaper means of not having to pay for a huge cast. Whichever excuse suits you. Trust me, though, the makeup is...something. Like, you know it's Frank Sinatra because it's Frank Sinatra and he just happens to be wearing a latex mask.
Anyway, it's the makeup in Cloud Atlas that leads us to the most problematic issue of the film. One of the story segments takes place in the future dystopia of Neo Seoul where Sonmi-451(Bae Doona), a fabricant service worker, becomes the leader of a group of rebels that exposes the horrific slavery and recycling of fabricants. Her revelations and teachings are later revealed to be the basis of the religious philosophy of the final story segment set in the post-apocalypse. Unfortunately, the entire segment is marred by the rampant yellowface of the predominantly white cast of actors, though even Halle Berry and Keith David are part of this segment, running around in just the worst makeup to make them appear of Asian descent.
One of those actors in yellowface, James D'Arcy, plays the role of the Archivist who is tasked with recording Sonmi-451's story before her execution.
I wish the Wachowski's had taken more care in how the Neo Seoul section would come across to audiences because there's an interesting dynamic at play between Sonmi and the Archivist as she tells her truth. The Archivist presents himself as an impartial third party; he's there to record, not judge Sonmi for her actions. Sonmi, however, isn't an idiot. She understands that the Archivist works for the governing body intent on killing her. He's also part of the society that views her and other fabricants as less than compared to "real" humans. She knows that, regardless of what she says, her truth isn't a factor in whatever narrative spin the government spews in order to make her the villain. The Archivist claims neutrality, but Sonmi sees it for the lie that it is.
The lie of neutrality comes up a lot on this website because it bears repeating that archives are not neutral. Depending on the institution, most archives are part of a larger governing body whether it's the actual government, a university, or a corporation. Any outliers are typically grassroots efforts towards community archiving, but it doesn't change the fact that an archives and those employed within the archives are bound by contracts and collecting policies that very clearly lay out the fact that they are not neutral. By virtue of choosing to acquire documents and artifacts and materials as well as choosing not to acquire other items, archives and archivists are actively engaged in assigning value and crafting narratives whether they like it or not.
Unfortunately, a lot of television and movies, when they bother to include an archives or an archivist, perpetuate this idea of the neutrality. If there's an archivist featured, they're just kind of there, hanging out. They hardly make a fuss, except to be snarky or strict, and they rarely pick a side. There are exceptions (see the Archivist Spotlight on Henry from Red), but, for the most part, archivists are portrayed as benign entities whose purpose is only to serve the plot or provide an obstacle to the protagonist. As depicted by Hollywood, archivists lack agency, which leaves little room to show the significant amount of day-to-day decision-making that goes into working in archival institutions.
I do appreciate, however, the turnaround on the Archivist once Sonmi has finished her story. She's laid out her truth, given him what he's asked for, with the full understanding that her words are no longer hers to control once she's dead. The Archivist, still utterly confused why she'd come out of hiding only to die, begins this exchange:
Archivist: If I may ask one last question. You had to know this union scheme was doomed to fail.
Archivist: Then why did you agree to it?
Sonmi-451: This is what General Apis asked of me.
Archivist: What? To be executed?
Sonmi-451: If I had remained invisible, the truth would have stayed hidden. I couldn't allow that.
Archivist: And what if no one believes this truth?
Sonmi-451: Someone already does.
What I like about this is the implication that the Archivist is, at the very least, a converted acolyte, if not the one responsible for starting the religion that eventually exists in the post-apocalypse segment. He came for the truth, he got the truth, and he watched a woman martyr herself to ensure at least one person knew the full story.
Cloud Atlas, whether it was intended or not, touched on the duality of an archivist's duties. Yes, archivists serve their institutions; acquiring, selecting, arranging, and describing records for future use. But in serving the institution, we tangentially serve the public. If that's the case, then shouldn't the public come before the institution?
If you want to get mathematical about it, which I'm sure you do, the transitive property of archivists goes thusly: If archivists serve the institution and institutions serve the public, then archivists serve the public. It's not wholly applicable, but it's helpful if one needs some perspective on the matter. In some cases, one is pitted against the other and archivists need to make a choice about what or whom they're beholden to especially when it's a matter of truth and accountability.
Sonmi goes to her death, but she's given the Archivist a choice about how her story truly ends. Thankfully, he chose wisely.