02.02.2014

THE THIN BLUE LINE

Being asked to talk about my favourite documentaries makes me a little anxious. A good film speaks to us emotionally - and our response to it is bound up with our particular preoccupations at the time and the context in which we see it. It's bad enough being responsible for your own films, let alone making people watch the work of others. So I diligently started re-watching my list of favourites, and many of them were good, but not as perfect as I'd remembered. But when I had another look at The Thin Blue Line it had an even greater impact than when I first saw it.

It's a film that's been so frequently imitated - and imitated badly - that it might be hard to appreciate how original it was when it was made in 1989. There was a period in the 1990s when it was hard to switch on BBC2 without hearing Philip Glass' music and film noir styled reconstructions. Many of those imitators ripped Morris' techniques out of context, and didn't use them with anything like the subtlety or depth of the original.

The Thin Blue Line was made at a time when the idea of a 'cinema documentary' seemed an oxymoron; documentary form was dominated by fly-on-the-wall reporting, voice of god narration, television journalism and arguments about balance and objectivity - the tired scraps of the verite revolution. The film was a distinctive break from a realist aesthetic, playing historical events like a thriller but one with profound ambiguity.

It was Errol Morris' third film and for those who haven't come across his work, it is worth saying a bit about him to give a flavour of his approach to film-making and perhaps to life. His wikipedia entry makes an entertaining read, though possibly it's as untrustworthy as the contributors to his documentaries. Here are some of its possibly apocryphal stories ...

Morris didn't go to film school; his unconventional approach to applying for university was to just show up on their doorsteps. This didn't work with Oxford University or Harvard, but he did talk his way into Princeton to study the history of physics, a topic in which he had "absolutely no background." Later he managed to enrol on a PhD at Berkeley to read philosophy. He described it as 'a world of pedants', but he joined the film society and met Werner Herzog - starting a lasting association.

In 1975, inspired by Psycho, Morris travelled to Wisconsin, interviewing Ed Gein, an infamous serial killer who'd been one of the models for Norman Bates and was still in psychiatric hospital. He persuaded Herzog to help him secretly open the grave of Gein's mother to test their theory that Gein himself had already dug her up. Herzog arrived on schedule, but Morris had second thoughts and didn't turn up.

Herzog didn't open the grave and came to the view that Morris would never finish anything he started.  He promised that if Morris ever completed a film he’d eat his shoe. There's a great short film by Les Blank, with the title ‘Werner Herzog Eats His Shoe’, because when Morris finally premiered his first film Gates Of Heaven, about a pet cemetery, Herzog did just that, publicly.

Morris’ next film was about the small town of Vernon Florida, which he became interested in because it was known as "Nub City" - a nickname derived from the residents' frequent amputations of their own limbs in order to collect the insurance money. When he made the film Morris omitted this detail because he received death threats from the townsfolk if ever he revealed their secret.  Supposedly.

Which brings me to testimony and the place it plays in Errol Morris' work. Testimony is at the heart of most documentary. And on the whole, it means the things people want to talk about and the way they want to talk about them. As a filmmaker you can see this as a problem and spend a lot of time trying to get people to say what you think is the truth or contextualise it with a narration - or you can work with the omissions, the inaccuracies and the downright lies as Morris does. In Morris’ hands testimony always partial and contradictory – and nowhere more so than in The Thin Blue Line.

All great documentaries make us think about what documentary is and reflect on the search for truth. They highlight the way that documentary navigates the line where truth meets story - and they trouble us because of that.

As Morris said of the film, "The Thin Blue Line is an essay on false history. A whole group of people believed a version of the world that was entirely wrong."

The film plays with our assumptions about evidence and with the multiple possible interpretations of the same evidence. Its re-enactments - and this is where a lot of Morris’ imitators have got him wrong - are the inverse of those you might find on Crimewatch, which try to tell us ‘this is how it was’. Instead, they replay the same set of events repeatedly from different perspectives, in different configurations, with sound and without sound, focusing on details which often contradict each other.

Like any good courtroom drama, our first assumptions are turned upside down. Our view of things in the film is often obscured, a partial illumination of the darkness like the light thrown by the police lamps which repeat as a motif throughout the film.

The sequences of B-movie clips remind us how our ideas about the truth are shaped by the fictions we consume. How can we rely on testimony in a world of stories, where narrativising our lives is so integral to our perceptions?  In the case of one eye witness, Mrs Miller, the confusion beween films and events has potentially terrifying consequences: it could lead us to kill a man.

So inevitably, The Thin Blue Line is also a film about justice, and its possibility. It's an empathetic film which humanises both victim and perpetrator. There's a kind of sadness about our own fallibilities that create this terrible situation.

The film has had a big influence on my own filmmaking, with its reminder that people never tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth; that this is fundamental to the human condition; and that documentaries are constructions whose purpose is to make us think through those contradictory perspectives. The camera isn't a device for recording the truth - it's as subject to omissions or partiality as any other witness.

Jean Rouch described documentary, not as recording reality, but as setting ‘traps for reality’. Like any trapper, it's the skill with which we set these traps that's core to ‘directing’; not making things happen (or ‘setting them up’), as you would in a fiction film or format show, but anticipating the conditions in which something might happen, committing to a process of inquiry and evolving a method to somehow capture that on film.

I was educated at a time when postmodernism and structuralism reigned and the assertion of truths seemed too problematic even to attempt. But I don't think you can make documentaries without a belief in the idea that there is such a thing as truth, and that pursuing it is worthwhile, whether or not we are ever able to reach it.  As Errol Morris has been quoted: "Truth is not relative. It's not subjective. It may be elusive or hidden. People may wish to disregard it. But there is such a thing as truth and the pursuit of truth: trying to figure out what has really happened, trying to figure out how things really are."

This is the text of an introduction I gave about a favourite documentary for students at Open City Docs 'History of Documentary' weekend in Feb 2014.
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