There’s a moment in the Nick Cave documentary, 20 000 Days on Earth (2014, dir. Iain Forsyth & Jane Pollard) when he finishes lunch with his collaborator Warren Ellis and announces that he’s got to be off, he’s going to the archive. Just the thing for the Brighton-dwelling rockstar to do after lunch.

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[from 20,000 Days on Earth: Nick Cave looks through the archive]

It turns into one of the most engaging sequences of an engaging documentary. It skirts the territory between fiction and nonfiction with scenes played for the camera. Among various conversations on location places like a therapist’s office, Ellis’s kitchen, the rehearsal space, Cave also talks to various people from his past as drives around: Kylie Minogue, Ray Winstone, former Bad Seed Blixa Bargeld. There’s no motivation for it; the doco just cuts to this someone else in the back of the car. Whether it’s meant to be an imaginary conversation is unclear and doesn’t really matter. It’s played straight even if it’s slightly oneiric. Cave and friends are performing deliberately for the camera, but this particular artifice is much more engaging than regular straight-to-camera interviews. And the archive is an artifice of sorts. There is one, but it’s at the Arts Centre in Melbourne, not Brighton.

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[from 20,000 Days on Earth]

When Cave sits with the archivists, the stories are triggered by objects and pictures: A school photo, Cave in his bedroom, Cave on the couch with a girlfriend. Most of these are prints or projected onto the brick wall. For one though, a screen is pulled down to view it: a photograph of Cave’s wife Susie Bick. She’s not really seen for the rest of the film. At the beginning, when Cave is getting out of bed, she’s a figure next to him but her head is turned away. Later, when Cave is watching TV at home she is not with him and their two sons. In the archive, a screen is pulled down to show a photo of her as Cave talks about their meeting and their depth of their bond. On this screen, there is still only a quick glimpse of her. She preserves a level of anonymity, even at this emotional centre of the movie. (I hadn’t realised this before looking around for other pictures of her, but she’s the model for a famous Nick Knight fashion photo, here also with a hidden face.)

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[from 20,000 Days on Earth: The screen is pulled down for Susie’s picture]

If we believe that the objects in the scene are the actual artefacts, then the sequence is a close examination of them as primary documents by the primary source himself. The momentary glimpses of the photographs don’t offer up the same scrutiny as being able to look over them in person, but having Nick Cave talk about their meaning is a pretty significant alternative. The 20,000 Days on Earth website twins with an online Museum of Important Shit, which allows anyone to catalogue “things that remind us of those transformative moments that make us who we are”. Artefacts aren’t just for rock stars, and as an anecdote on th Museum web page tells us, chewing gum doesn’t always need to be thrown away.

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[from 20,000 Days on Earth]

I love that the photographs are presented as part of an archive, rather than a random pile of images. It says that there’s value in the systematic collection and that drawing from it is as vital a part of the storytelling as having Kylie show up in the back of the car.