Morris says that documentary filmmakers can pick up some of the slack as investigative journalism declines.
During the annual David Lean lecture at BAFTA this weekend, acclaimed US documentary maker Errol Morris praised BAFTA for deciding to honour documentaries in its annual film awards.
“I’ve been told that this is part of this new deal, that for the very first time documentaries are going to be honoured by BAFTA,” Morris stated of his invitation to give the lecture. “I haven’t been asked what I think about it but yes, I think it’s a good thing. I think it’s a terrific thing. Documentaries clearly have come of age!”
During his BAFTA speech, Morris (whose best known credits include The Fog Of War and The Thin Blue Line) called for documentary makers to be ready to break rules.
“Being a contrarian, I decided to do everything the wrong way,” Morris said of how, as a young filmmaker, he broke away from Cinema Verité/Fly On The Wall orthodoxy. Rather than use handheld camera and available light, he would put the camera on a tripod and invite interviewees to talk directly to camera.
Morris insisted that there is no one set way to make documentaries.
“There is something bottomless about reality. You never have complete answers. You never know what to expect. You truly are involved in something investigative,” Morris (who has a parallel career directing highly successful commercials for companies such as Apple and Miller beer) said.
The director said that, although his own films are interview-driven, he never has a list of questions prepared to ask interviewees and expects to be surprised.
Morris said that, as a kid, he watched David Lean’s The Sound Barrier many times. However, he disputed the claims in Lean’s film that the British broke the sound barrier. “The Americans did!”
The documentary maker also spoke of his pride at being able to get “an innocent man out of jail” while making his celebrated film, The Thin Blue Line. Through the documentary, Morris was able to exonerate a suspect, who was sentenced to death for a murder he didn’t commit and was three days away from being executed. Scenes of Morris’s film were submitted in Federal and State court as evidence.
In his Q&A with fellow documentary maker Adam Curtis after his speech, Morris reflected on the overlap between documentary and journalism, The veteran filmmaker said that documentary filmmakers are “picking up some of the slack” as investigative journalism has declined.
“Journalism without investigation is gossip,” Morris stated.
The lecture and Q&A was streamed “live” on BAFTA’s new website, Bafta Guru.
Tabloid, the new film from Morris, is released in the UK by Dogwoof later this week.