Media Law Prof Blog

Editor: Christine A. Corcos
Louisiana State Univ.

Friday, April 4, 2008

Errol Morris On the Documentary

Filmmaker Errol Morris takes on the question of when a documentary is not a documentary, in part one of an essay in today's New York Times. When does playing it again, Sam, seem as if it's playing it for the first time? Begins Mr. Morris,

“So, how is it that you managed to be on the roadway that night?” The question was posed by a reporter from the Dallas Morning News. This was in 1988, during an interview about my recently released film, “The Thin Blue Line.” I had decided for the first time as a documentary filmmaker to use slow-motion re-enactments in my account of the wrongful conviction of Randall Dale Adams for the murder of Dallas Police Officer Robert Wood.

The question seemed insane. The film was released in 1988. The crime occurred in 1976. Was this reporter suggesting that I had been out on the roadway with a 35-millimeter film crew the night of the murder, and just happened to be at the right place, at the right time to film the crime – over a decade earlier? Indeed, he was.

Just so there is no doubt about this: I wasn’t there.


He continues, discusses objections to the use of re-enactments which stress that re-enactments are "untrue", that they suggest or substitute a reality for the viewer, which the viewer then adopts, in a way that s/he would never do with a fictionalized film.

Critics argue that the use of re-enactments suggest a callous disregard on the part of a filmmaker for what is true. I don’t agree. Some re-enactments serve the truth, others subvert it. There is no mode of expression, no technique of production that will instantly produce truth or falsehood. There is no veritas lens – no lens that provides a “truthful” picture of events. There is cinema vérité and kino pravda but no cinematic truth.

The engine of uncovering truth is not some special lens or even the unadorned human eye; it is unadorned human reason. It wasn’t a cinema vérité documentary that got Randall Dale Adams out of prison. It was film that re-enacted important details of the crime. It was an investigation – part of which was done with a camera. The re-enactments capture the important details of that investigation. It’s not re-enactments per se that are wrong or inappropriate. It’s the use of them. I use re-enactments to burrow underneath the surface of reality in an attempt to uncover some hidden truth.

But what about the reporter who thought I had been out on the roadway? Maybe I could have been there – by pure happenstance – 10 years before I started work on the film, out there on the roadway with a film crew. Unlikely, but possible. I wasn’t, but that isn’t the point. Is the problem that we have an unfettered capacity for credulity, for false belief, and hence, we feel the need to protect ourselves from ourselves? If seeing is believing, then we better be damn careful about what we show people, including ourselves – because, regardless of what it is – we are likely to uncritically believe it.


Mr. Morris has a great deal to say about the importance of narrative. Here's a link to part one of Mr. Morris's essay, which is a provocative look at how a major filmmaker sees his craft. And it even has footnotes!

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