Category Archives: Documentaries

Errol Morris on reality

In an odd moment of coincidence, I happened to watch Errol Morris’s “The Thin Blue Line” for the first time last night. This afternoon Mediabistro’s Fishbowl L.A. blog referenced a column Morris contributed to the New York Times Web site about the use of recreation in documentary filmmaking, which you can read here.

With a background in documentary studies, I was fascinated while watching the film with Morris’s use of dramatic recreations to tell his story. At first somewhat disturbed by them, it became clear that his returns to the depiction of the shooting of Dallas police officer Robert Wood were the most effective tools to illustrate the various perspectives on the crime scene offered by the sources Morris interviewed. His description of the importance of the milkshake dropped by Wood’s partner, Teresa Turko, is crucial to understanding Morris’s discussion of the impossibility of a true veritas lens in that it illustrates, as he says, the importance of pieced-together details for depictions of “reality.” As has been explored in many, many sources, the mere framing of a scene in a lens is already an alteration of reality fraught with issues of perspective, angle, selection, editing and medium. It is how what is framed is stitched together and presented to the viewer that determines its fairness to reality. If, as Morris suggests, one is unable to be present for an event in discussion, then a reproduction — or multiple reproductions of the same event — can, if done responsibly, stitch together the details provided by various interviewees and source materials. I propose that this is in a way no different than a newspaper reporter or other writer describing an event for a story through textual representations and recreations.

Yes, it is ridiculous that anyone, particularly a newspaper reporter, had to ask Morris whether the footage of the crime was real, so clearly more must be done to cultivate a more discerning public. One must ask how out of touch with reality society might be, and Morris, in a crucial paragraph, explores this question in the following passage:

“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.”

This statement reminds me of the quick acceptance by the masses of the 9/11 Truth Movement and the idea that the official depiction of the attacks on the Pentagon and the World Trade Center is inconceivable. While on the surface one might say the “capacity for credulity” supports criticism of the official history of September 11, I think there is an equally dangerous capacity to believe films such as Loose Change and the idea of overarching conspiracies as truth. Images are powerful, and just as pro-administration propaganda stirred support for war and civil liberties rollbacks there is an immense threat of political skepticism based on constructed realities that threatens the credibility of informed, insightful criticism and investigation of the status quo.

I am delving into a bit of a tangent here, and the above passage stands for itself about the care we must take with the abundance of information delivery methods about how we present what we term “reality.”