A Talk With Errol Morris
Truth Is Hard To Find

Errol Morris has had a long and storied career. A product of the 1970s and the San Francisco Art Institute, he has made his living primarily as the creator of ground-breaking feature-length documentaries. After earning a strong (if quiet) critical reputation with his early efforts, he became an overnight sensation with 1988’s The Thin Blue Line, a story which Morris stumbled across while researching a film about death row executioners. Instead, he found himself absorbed in the case of Randall Dale Adams, on death row for the murder of a Dallas area police officer. With the help of Morris’ film, the conviction was overturned and Adams went free.

Over the last twenty years, Morris has done a wide variety of documentary and commercial advertising work. His higher profile titles include The Fog of War, A Brief History of Time, and Mr. Death. His films are always provocative and stimulating, are almost always riveting, and have shaped the way that that the public and other filmmakers think about the potential benefits (and unique limitations) of the documentary artform.

Recreating an incident for Standard Operating ProcedureCourtesy of a local publicist, I was able to spend twenty minutes talking with Morris in a suite at a downtown Seattle hotel about his latest film, Standard Operating Procedure, reviewed last week here at Past the Popcorn.

I’ve really enjoyed the articles you’ve written in the New York Times this month.

Errol Morris: Thank you very much.

Particularly because, to me, it’s really nice to see the artform being talked about in that level of detail in a public forum—as opposed to in some film journal like Film Comment that regular people don’t read.

EM: Yes.

The topics that you’re talking about—how we process information, and what our expectations are as we go in to sit down and watch a movie, much less a documentary—are important issues that most moviegoers aren’t very interested in. And yet it’s part of the whole basic cultural literacy project.

EM: Maybe they are. They just don’t know about it, or don’t think about it.

Right. It’s just not out there and being talked about. I mean, you don’t pick up Entertainment Weekly and read an interview with Errol Morris talking about how we process visual information. That’s not what the mainstream entertainment magazines are pushing at people. So you’re right. They may be interested; they’re just not seeing it.

EM: Of course, you might be right. They may not be interested in it at all.

Well, we’re running an experiment—that’s why I’m interviewing you! We’ll run that in front of our readers and see if they care. One of the statements that you made in the Times is that there is “no mode of expression, no technique of production that will instantly produce truth or falsehood. There is no veritas lens that provides a truthful picture of events. There is cinema verite and kino pravda, but no cinematic truth. So the engine of uncovering truth is not some special lens or the unadorned human eye; it is unadorned human reason.”

EM: Yes.

Now, how do you think that plays out with the average audience member? For instance, when people go to sit down and see one of your films, do you think there’s a different level of interaction than when they sit down to watch Iron Man, or entertainment du jour?

EM: It’s hard for me to even imagine how people experience my films. I’m so involved with thinking about them and making them. It’s always been my hope that they can be taken on lots and lots of different levels. They can be taken as just entertainment. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that. They are, after all, supposed to be movies.

And if you don’t entertain first off, you don’t get to the other levels—at least, not when you release a film into theaters.

EM: No. Every movie I’ve made has been released in theaters. And they’ve been released in theaters because they work with audiences, at least on some level.

I’ve heard you mention that you prefer to be thought of as just a filmmaker in general, not specifically a maker of documentaries.

EM: Well, documentary filmmaking—in terms of style—gives you all of these possibilities. In a certain sense you can reinvent what documentary filmmaking is every time you make a documentary film. You can change the balance of elements; you can tell a story in different ways. Of course, there are common themes in what I do, and techniques that I’ve used over and over and over again. But I like to think that I’m always doing something different. I’m always finding a different way to shoot an interview; I’m finding a different way to tell a story, or a different way to use visuals or re-enacted material in a movie. But the underlying idea: it goes back to “unadorned human reason.” The underlying idea is that you’re trying to find out something about reality. That’s what makes it different [from] a work of pure fiction. The intention underneath all of that other stuff is to find things out—to investigate.

And yet it’s really just a different form of investigation. Most workers in the fantasy genre, for instance, would say that the level of abstraction in that particular form of fiction is just another way of getting at truth, and getting at reality—so that you come back to reality and have a fresher perspective on it.

EM: I would describe it differently, because I am very much interested in what actually happened. That question. I mean, that’s true of The Thin Blue Line. What actually happened? Did Randall Adams shoot the cop? Or did David Harris shoot the cop? That’s the central question—and the belief that the question has an answer. Real world. Things happen. We may be horribly confused about what happened; we may have false views about what happened; but we can investigate. We can think about evidence and we can try to figure out what is really true and what is false. And that’s run through a lot of my films.

Absolutely. And yet, looking back at what’s happened in the last twenty-five or thirty years of documentary filmmaking, as somebody who’s been watching it progress—

EM: Yes.

Since The Thin Blue Line, it seems that because that film in particular led to a reversal and to actual justice being done for Randall Adams, there has now been levied upon that form of filmmaking the expectation that, when you sit down and watch a documentary (whether it’s yours or anyone else’s), that’s the objective: getting at the truth of what really happened. And yet there are many, many documentaries out there where the filmmakers really aren’t interested in that at all, but in, as Michael Moore has said, shaping a new myth—shaping a new reality, as opposed to getting at the truth of what really happened.

EM: Yeah. You know, I can’t speak for other filmmakers.

Right. I’m talking about how the audiences perceive them, and how audiences experience documentaries—and the level of expectations they bring into them. Which is why I think your articles in the Times are particularly important. They get at the idea that if you are not intellectually engaged with what you’re seeing, whether it’s your films or the films of Michael Moore—or even Prince Caspian—if you’re not really engaged with what’s happening at an intellectual level, it’s making you think things, and do things that you may be completely unaware of.

EM: One of the things, of course, that I’m really, really interested in is how photographs… Othello demands from Iago ocular proof. And we all know that the ocular proof does not serve Othello well in the end—that appearances can, in fact, be deceiving. The ocular proof may not be any kind of proof at all. We see photographs—and I guess that’s the underlying idea behind Standard Operating Procedure—and we think instantly, “I know what I’m looking at; I know what I’m seeing here before me.” And there’s another odd phenomenon when you have a whole pile of photographs. There were two hundred and seventy photographs from Abu Ghraib put into evidence—and somebody dumps those two hundred and seventy photographs in front of you and you start to think: “That’s Abu Ghraib.” I’m not seeing what’s not in the photographs; I’m just seeing what’s in the photographs. That’s what I see. That’s it.

You’re not even seeing a three-year sample of what happened at Abu Ghraib; you’re just seeing a four-month window.

EM: You’re seeing a four-month window. That’s correct. October, November, December, and part of January of 2004. I remember wondering whether Abu Ghraib was one corridor in a prison block: what you basically see in the photographs. I later found out, of course, that this is a huge place. Better than 10,000 prisoners by the end of 2003. It’s not a corridor; it was a city, the hub of intelligence operations in Iraq, what was known as JDIC, the Joint Intelligence and Debriefing Center, where intelligence efforts are coordinated: constant communication with the Department of Defense at the highest levels. A different kind of picture [from] a picture that emerges from just looking at a sample of photographs.

Well, the ocular evidence that I want to focus on in your film is Sabrina Harman’s letters—because those are read from; and not only the oral retelling of it as Sabrina reads those letter, but we actually see the sheets from the yellow legal pads with the words written on them.

EM: They’re scanned from the actual letters themselves.

That’s very interesting, because that fact brings up a lot of questions. As we are given to understand it, those letters were sent back by Sabrina to her partner, essentially as the events were unfolding during that period.

EM: That’s correct.

And yet, as we hear those letters read and see them on the screen, there is no indication that they were seen by anybody else—that they were censored or edited. What’s the story with that? Where did those letter end up, and how is it that they made it home without anyone being aware that they had been written? And if someone were aware that they had been written, why did nobody act on them?

EM: I don’t think [military officials] were aware that they had been written. I think that the place was incredibly disorganized. I know that a lot of people would like to believe that Bush, Cheney, and Rumsfeld were in control of everything; but the place was just too disorganized for anybody to be in control of anything.

In organizations, that’s one of the elements necessary for conspiracy isn’t it?

EM: That’s another subject altogethe—conspiracies—which are endlessly fascinating. But I’m not a great believer in them. But part of the story of the Iraq War is the sending of an army to Iraq that was under-trained, ill-equipped, understaffed—a situation devolving into bedlam. If the question is, “Is it surprising that all of these letters weren’t read and checked before they were sent to America?” No, I’m not surprised. They had enough on their hands to deal with.

But at the same time, the fact that those letters weren’t—which is standard operating procedure in other war settings, for national security reasons—is an indicator of how information in general was out of control. Information was not being monitored—such as video recorders and digital cameras.

EM: Well, it becomes harder to control everything. Of course, one of the central aspects of this story is the digital revolution we’ve gone through: the fact that photographs can be sent around the world with one click. They can be sent a hundred thousand places with one click. You can’t control the distribution of photographs the way you could have in the past. They’re not even printed. They’re shown on screens; they’re displayed on LCDs or CRTs—whatever. There’s one aspect to the story that very few people know about: When the photographs were turned in by Joseph Darby in January of 2004, we somehow think that we know about those photographs because of Darby, but we don’t. Not at all. The military, given its druthers, would have buried them altogether. They never would have seen the light of day. In fact, the soldiers were in limbo for many, many, many months before the military could decide what to do, and whether the stuff was going to get out or not. They sent police officer’s to Kelly and Sabrina’s house in Virginia looking for photographs. The way I’ve heard the story, they came in saying that they were acting under the authority of the President of the United States. The photographs got out because of a little-known (but I think heroic) Lieutenant Colonel in the public affairs office working for [Maj. Gen. Antonio] Taguba at [Camp] Doha [in Kuwait], who told 60 Minutes that there were these photographs. The photographs got to 60 Minutes via a different source; but they were leaked to Seymour Hirsch and 60 Minutes via a completely different path altogether. Otherwise we would never, never, never know about them. It’s an endlessly interesting story, a story of photography, of cover-ups, of cover-ups of cover-ups—a story of the propagandist and political purposes they can be put to.