Playback: Errol Morris' 'The Thin Blue Line'
by Jon Shenk
I was a freshman in college when a friend asked me one night if I was interested in seeing a documentary film. "The director will be there," he said. "A guy named Errol Morris."
The screening was in a lecture hall, but when the lights dimmed, I immediately felt transported to another world. An electric blue line shot through the screen during the title sequence, and I remember thinking, I have no idea what this blue line is all about, but I'm drawn to it. I spent the rest of the film in a state of hypnosis.
The first lines, like so much of the interview material in The Thin Blue Line, come so effortlessly. This is America, I remember thinking, but a new kind of America where every spoken syllable is important. A man in jail tells us, "In October, my brother and I left Ohio... We arrived in Dallas on a Thursday." Another inmate begins by saying, "I ran away from home." The pace is patient and deliberate. In this alternate universe, engaging one another's stories feels like a sacred act.
At 19, I had never considered a career as a documentary filmmaker. I had never thought about what made a documentary a documentary, but with The Thin Blue Line, I was beholding a beautiful piece of art, full of drama, justice and humanity. I wondered, Could I ever be a part of something like this?
The Thin Blue Line is a study of truth. At one level, it is a collection of depositions, in life's cosmic courtroom, that serve as a giant "fuck you" to the Texas criminal justice system. During the Q&A that night, a student asked Morris how he felt about the death penalty. He responded that he never intended to make an anti-death penalty film, but that he found his subject, Randall Adams, by accident while researching a film focused on the court psychologist that assessed Adams' sanity. "However," Morris said, "if I was able to randomly uncover one innocent person on death row, I can't help but to think there might be a second one out there."
That response defines the relationship between documentaries and the potential activism around the issue that they approach. Morris is not so much an activist as he is an artist/storyteller unabashed by unimpeachable, first-hand knowledge about this particular subject matter.
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