Winter 2011

Errol Morris
Truth Be Told

The form and tools of documentary filmmaking have changed over the years, but what motivates Errol Morris is the pursuit of truth - however he can find it.


Errol Morris
BROAD VIEW: Morris says even reality TV is a form of
documentary. "There's an underlying reality to it."
(Photo courtesy Errol Morris)

"There isn't a right or wrong way to do documentaries," says Errol Morris, the award-winning director of The Thin Blue Line, The Fog of War and Standard Operating Procedure. "There isn't a set of rules that have to be followed, but let's put this as a moral prescription: You should be trying to seek truth." You can dress up a documentary film in whatever stylistic drag you choose: be it Maysles' cinéma vérité or Werner Herzog's "ecstatic truth"; by using assisted reality, a style that can be traced all the way back to documentary pioneer Robert Flaherty; or by injecting the filmmaker into the story. Whatever the form, Morris says, it's the quest for truth that has been at the core of all documentaries through their history and development. Morris had been fascinated with the search for veracity in documentaries since he was a graduate student in philosophy at UC-Berkeley, slipping away to the Pacific Film Archive to see the early work of the New German Cinema—Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Wim Wenders and especially Herzog's Fata Morgana. "There's a documentary element in all of Herzog's films," Morris explains, "and there was the feeling of, I didn't know you were allowed to do that; that movies could look like that."

The films that interested him the most were the ones that didn't fall into the established canon. "It it wasn't cinéma vérité, but something stranger." Georges Franju's Blood of the Beasts, Luis Buñuel's Land Without Bread, Dziga Vertov's Man with a Movie Camera: Films not by documentarians, per se, but by "filmmakers interested in the craft of making movies." While remaining a devoted fan of straight vérité work by the likes of Frederick Wiseman, it was in the more irreverent films where Morris found inspiration.

As such, his first film, Gates of Heaven (1978), was a stylized, deliberately rule-breaking documentary, reacting against the prevailing claims and supposedly unobtrusive recording methods of vérité. "I'm sorry, vérité is not more truthful than anything else," he says. "It's just a style of photography. As if the tripod were the impediment to veracity."

Thus the equipment Morris chose for his film about a pet cemetery forced to relocate was the heaviest, most obtrusive he could afford. He had his interviewees talk directly into the camera instead of denying its existence, he constructed his scenarios and lit everything. In other words, Morris filmed moments as seemingly artificial as he could while still demanding a truth from them. After his second film, Vernon, Florida (1981), about the oddball residents of the namesake town, Morris made a series of tabloid-type story proposals to public television. All were rejected because back then there was no home for the sort of work he was trying to do.

"There are entire channels devoted to this kind of story today," he says. One proposal was for a POV doc on the fattest man in the world. "You would never see him," Morris explains, "just the edge of him, but it's about the effect he has on the world around him. I thought it could be fantastic. Now, if you turn on The Learning Channel you'll see a thousand examples of this kind of thing. Reality television is something new, absolutely. And it is documentary. I mean, you can say, 'This is not really documentary; documentary has a much higher purpose than this kind of thing.' But that's not true."

Morris' time spent as a private detective during those lean years led to an investigation that precipitated the release of an innocent man from prison, the subject of The Thin Blue Line (1998). He caught a great deal of flak for his unconventional use of re-enactments to elucidate the events of the story, and was even asked by a reporter how he happened to be on the road that night to record the events of the shooting.

SHADOW FIGURE: Morris with Robert S. McNamara, the former
secretary of defense during the Vietnam War and the subject
of The Fog of War (2003). (Credit: Claire Folger)

"The argument against re-enactments is, are you tricking the audience into thinking they're real?" says Morris. "The fact that you have re-enactments or don't has nothing to do with the underlying desire to ferret out the truth. You can try and deceive using them, but that's not about re-enactments; that's about deception and lying. Ultimately, we all live in a sea of confusion. Part of our job, and part of mine, is trying to break through all of that falsehood to something that is real and true. Can you be guaranteed of doing that? Of course not. But can you try and do it? Of course you can."

The heavily visual, interview-based nature of Morris' documentaries has been particularly impacted by the revolution in hi-def cameras. Digital recording meant his first interview of Abu Ghraib commander Janis Karpinski for his documentary Standard Operating Procedure could capture 17 hours over two days. "You can't do that on 35mm," he says. "I'd be in the poor house. I would never shoot interview on film again. Hi-def looks beautiful and transfers to film beautifully."

Shooting more than 1,000 commercials has allowed Morris to play with the technology as it evolves. He has used the Phantom series cameras on countless commercials and for Standard Operating Procedure, and notes their ability to run 1000 fps has transformed slow motion recording. "Before, you had to wait to see if the shot was successful," explains Morris. Now you see it within a matter of seconds. That's changed everything. I also remember shooting a commercial with the RED camera just using available window light; my cameraman, Bob Chappell, was subtracting light rather than adding. The image was absolutely exquisite. So now we're able to shoot at much lower light levels. It's different, and it's fun to change with the technology."

Morris has a broad view of which new media phenomena qualify as documentary, from reality TV to Jackass. When questioned about the minimal threshold in which one can, in good conscience, call something a documentary, he sees a fluid boundary line.

"In Jersey Shore, it may be scripted, it may be ultra-processed, it may be manipulated in God-knows-what ways, but there's an element of underlying reality to it, such as it is," Morris explains. "Last year I voted for Bruno as best picture. Sacha Baron Cohen found this perfect blend of the utterly real, the sublime, the absurd and the horrifying. It's really cutting edge documentary. Whether it's Michael Moore, Morgan Spurlock, Sacha Baron Cohen - people's responses to that contrived situation have an element of reality, and that does make it documentary. It's also the element of spontaneity - how are people going to respond here?"

For his latest documentary, Tabloid, about a former Miss Wyoming beauty pageant winner in the '70s accused of kidnapping a Mormon missionary, Morris eschewed the use of re-enactments because, he says, he was tired of having to answer criticisms about using them. Besides, how one gets to the truth is not really his main concern. "There's something important in filmmaking that transcends style or presentation. After all, we care what the filmmaker is thinking about, not what aperture he shoots a scene at."

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