Errol Morris: In Person

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Photo courtesy of the Edinburgh International Film Festival. Errol Morris, director of Standard Operating Procedure at Edinburgh International Film Festival on June 21.

“Never travel without the Interrotron.” Errol Morris, interviewed on stage at the Edinburgh International Film Festival, put great store in his infamous invention: the teleprompter-like set-up by which he allows his interview subjects to see his face while also looking directly into the camera. “I like first-person interviews, so that the subject is very much talking to you. Before the Interrotron, all I could do was try and squeeze into my subject’s eye line with my face as close as possible to the side of the camera. In Gates of Heaven you can see the side of my head poking into shot once or twice. But eye contact is the key. How powerful it is to hear Robert McNamara talking about the destruction of the world while you look directly into his eyes. It has an arresting quality.”

As an interview subject, Morris can pose a challenge. His answers come via drip feed, circling the runway before arriving and accompanied by generous helpings of self-deprecation. It takes a little getting used to, but you can well believe that an interview subject with arrogance or moral confusion on his mind might leap into the silences Morris provides.

Choosing the images that appear along with his interview subject is an organic process for Morris, who likes them to rise naturally out of the conversations. “It’s like cooking, deciding what the main ingredients are going to be,” the filmmaker said. “With Fog of War, juxtaposing McNamara now with McNamara then was the main ingredient. With Standard Operating Procedure, it’s the Abu Ghraib photographs themselves. All my images are drawn from the interviewers, when they say things that interest me.”

Standard Operating Procedure sees Morris tackling the tortures at Abu Ghraib, and by extension the Iraq war. He deflects the criticism that his film fails to fully assign guilt and right the wrongs on display. “The documentarian as Superman, righting wrongs and bringing Bush to justice? I don’t see that as a role,” he said. “I’m actually just as interested in why we have grown to tolerate the situation, why the anti-war demonstrations are becoming smaller. Maybe I’m a bad person for not going in for straight agit-prop and somehow galvanizing the people. But for me the more interesting question is the nature of war. There’s just something puzzling about war. It’s a question to grapple with.”

By their nature and their subjects, Morris’s documentaries raise questions about the nature of confession. “People want confession,” he said. “They need it. But I’m less interested in their confession than in capturing something of the people themselves, just talking. Confession is misleading anyway. There are so many ways to allow evasion if someone wants to, and if one has enough desire to forget something, then it’s possible simply not to know. There’s no clear reality in the brain to be uncovered. The best we can do is examine the contents.”

© 2008 Tim Hayes. All rights reserved.

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