So this week I have been watching lots of documentaries with a view to identifying a director that has influenced me. It seems that a lot of people within the program already know who theirs is but having always watched documentaries based on their topic rather than who made it I generally did not have one. So, I am approaching my assignment a little differently by watching films made by the same director and see if they speak to me.
Last night I watched The Thin Blue Line by directed by Errol Morris. The film will in part be remembered as that which helped secure the release of a man wrongly convicted of murder, but the way the film portrayed the information is also of great interest to me.
The film centres around the conviction of Randall Adams for the murder of police officer Robert Woods and whether it was in fact David Harris, who Adams had been hanging out with, that was responsible for the murder. The film uses re-enactment to recreate the murder scene subtly changing the portrayal as the witness statements change or further ‘witnesses’ come forwards. Non-sequential storytelling and blurring of evidence in the re-enactments helps to highlight the confusion, discredit evidence and bring the conviction into question.
It is filmed in such a way that it adds suspense with small details being focused on such as the angle of the police office approaching that you would see from under a car, and the slo-mo discarding of the chocolate milk by his partner through the window after he is shot. It has a whodunit type delivery in which the viewer is further engaged in piecing together information through the lack of titling of names of the various witnesses, lawyers, police offices etc. that are interviewed.
While we are not given the names, use of lighting, camera lighting, and subtle information in the background does help the viewer to decide what to think about each character. The police officers who charged Adams (and provided Harris with immunity for other crimes committed) are filmed with a cool light, some in blue rooms to add a sense of detachment. The lawyers fighting for Adams are filmed in a much warmer light; they seem inviting and compassionate. Adams himself, is filmed in a darkened black cell but is lit in a way that makes him seem warm but imprisoned by darkness. Within the film we hear that the witness statements provided in court should potentially not be trusted as they may have been willing to ‘see’ things based on the offer of money. This came to light through an interview with Elba Carr who worked with Emily Miller, one of the witnesses. She had tried to raise this concern in court but had been repeatedly cut-off and remarks made about her big fat nose getting in other people’s business. I liked the choice of camera angle for interviewing this lady, she was presented as very proper and well turned out, with eye shadow that matched the background walls, and a camera angle looking slightly up to her so that she appears to be sneering. The title comes from the prosecutor’s comment about the thin blue line separating society from anarchy. I like in the background that a slightly wider gap between one of the venetian blind panes seems to create that blue line running across the screen.
The film does a great job of interspersing interview with re-enactments, diagrams, maps, photographs, court drawings and newspaper clippings. The use of all these techniques mean that it never feels static and suspense is growing all the time. The score created by Philip Glass greatly adds to this sense of suspense. By the end of the film I was in no doubt who I was expected to feel was innocent and who was guilty. The film comes to a close with an interview with Harris pointing towards the innocence of Adams by stating that he (Harris) knows what happened that night.
There are several things to learn from in this film and the way it was directed: re-enactment, non-linear storytelling, cinematographic techniques, the use of lighting and music. They are all food for thought as I transition from fan to filmmaker but for some reason, something is holding me back and I don’t feel that I have found my influential director yet. For now, at least, the hunt continues, but at least I feel like I am learning a lot along the way.