On this week’s post, we’re digging into documentaries. The first is about the making of a film, and the second is about the murder of a police officer in Dallas, and the subsequent trial and conviction. This week’s films are:
Les Blank – Burden of Dreams (1982)
Errol Morris – The Thin Blue Line (1988)
I strongly considered watching Fitzcorraldo this week, which is the film being made in Burden of Dreams. I think that would be an interesting pairing, but I really wanted to look at documentaries. I’ve looked at documentaries focusing on pop culture phenomena in the past, but both of these films cover more serious topics. I’ve seen both films before, and The Thin Blue Line is one of my favorite documentaries of all time.
Let’s get into it.
Burden of Dreams (1982)
Burden of Dreams is a film about the making of Fitzcarraldo, a passion project of Werner Herzog. His film is about a man trying to bring opera the the jungle. In order to earn enough money to do so, he gets into the rubber business. His plan is to move a boat between two rivers over land to get access to new rubber trees. The documentary follows the project as it becomes mired in local politics, tribal conflicts, logistics problems, disease which leads to cast changes, and Herzog’s own inability to compromise his vision.
Herzog is well-known for his documentaries in the last 15 years, but he’s had a lot of work in fictional film as well, including Fitzcarraldo, Aguirre Wrath of God, and Bad Lieutenant among others. Because he narrates his own documentaries, his public persona is very clear. But in this film we see his private persona. And it’s exactly the same. I’ve had the pleasure of meeting Werner Herzog in person, and no matter what situation he’s in, his personality is exactly the same. It’s incredibly surreal.
The film begins by discussing Herzog’s first attempt to complete the film. He built a small jungle camp in Brazil, near two rivers that were close enough to drag the boat across, just like Fitzcarraldo did. Unfortunately, his camp is too close to a contested border, and he gets caught up in a political dispute that forces him to move his camp before it gets violent. He ends up with two shooting locations about 1500 miles apart. One in Iquitos, the city Fitzcarraldo wanted to bring opera to, and a remote jungle location. Even with fantastic infrastructure, this would be a challenge to navigate, but in an undeveloped jungle, it becomes nearly impossible.
We also see some early clips of the film, starring Jason Robards and Mick Jagger. Unfortunately, Robards developed a serious case of amoebic dysentery, and had to leave set. His doctor forbid him to return. During the delay, Mick Jagger also had to drop out, due to touring responsibilities with The Rolling Stones.
Herzog had to start over completely, removing Jagger’s character from the film entirely. Robards was replaced with Klaus Kinski, an actor who had worked with before. Herzog would later make a documentary about Kinksi called My Best Fiend, where he admits he had planned to kill Kinski, but never went through with it. Kinski is charitably described as a handful. We don’t see it as much in this film, as it focuses on production problems, but we do see some choice moments from Kinski losing his temper, and one moment in particular where he refuses to drink alcohol made by the natives because one of the main ingredients is their spit.
Herzog hires locals to help him build sets and act in the film as the locals that Fitzcarraldo encounters. This creates even more challenges taking the locals away from their villages and families for long periods of time. Tensions rise in the camps, especially over the centerpiece of the film, in which Herzog intends to drag a giant steam ship over land. Even Fitzcarraldo disassembled the ship before transporting it over land, but Herzog refuses, insisting taking it all in one piece.
Herzog has three ships, one near Iquitos, and two in the jungle. One to drag over the land, and the other to shoot scenes where the boat needs to float. Unfortunately, the delays of the filming have moved them out of the rainy season, and the river is far too low for the large steam ship. Herzog presses on anyway, shooting scenes and getting the boat stuck on the shore. Later on, when shooting scenes of the boat out of control on the rapids, he genuinely puts the steam ship on the rapids with actors and crew and allows the boat to be tossed about the river. The camera man gets injured in the chaos.
When trying to clear the land to drag the ship, they find the soil quality thick and muddy, making it nearly impossible to work. They use a bulldozer to clear the land, but it’s unreliable, and breaks down. Even when it’s cleared, the engineer who designed the system quits, telling Herzog it’s too dangerous. Herzog presses on.
Throughout the film, we see the connection between Herzog and his main character. Fitzcarraldo obsessively drug his boat over the land in order to earn enough money to bring opera to the jungle. Herzog obsessively drags his boat over the land in order to finish his film.
Of course, the finished film exists, so we know that he eventually completed his film, but the story of how he did it is remarkable, and even a little disturbing.
This is a thoroughly engaging film about a man on a mission, who will not be denied, no matter what. It’s also about the people who are willing to make sacrifices to help him achieve this vision.
In this way, it’s not just about the drive of Herzog. It’s about the drive of all the people helping him, who believe in his vision. Film isn’t something you can do alone, not at this scale. The ability of Herzog to convince other people to buy-in to his vision is more impressive to me than his ability to never give up his vision.
The film does an amazing job of connecting the dots for us. It shows us the story of Herzog, but contrasts it with the story of Fitzcarraldo. Without working too hard, we can see the connection between Herzog’s obsession and Fitzcarraldo’s obsession.
The power of documentaries is to take the chaos of everyday life, and organize it to reveal some underlying message, or even an underlying truth. We almost never see these patterns as we’re living them, but a talented filmmaker can put it all together for us.
Let’s look at the next film.
The Thin Blue Line (1988)
The Thin Blue Line tells the story of Randall Adams, a man accused of murdering a police officer on a traffic stop in Dallas in the late 70s. Adams continually maintains his innocence, but the police are sure they have their man. The film takes us through the crime and the trial, giving us a comprehensive view of everything that happened, and everything that was ignored by the justice system.
The film is directed by Errol Morris, one of the most celebrated documentarians of this era. This was the film that put him on the map. The film opens with Randall Adams telling the story of how he ended up in Dallas, and met a young man named David Harris.
Harris’ story begins with him telling the story of how he stole a car and drove to Dallas. He picked up Randall Adams on the side of the road after he ran out of gas. The two spent the day hanging out, then Adams says he went home around 9pm to the hotel room he was sharing with his brother. Harris asked to stay with them that night, but Adams refused.
For Adams, that might have been the end of the story. But that night, during a routine traffic stop, a police officer was shot several times. The car drove off, and the officers partner fired several shots at the fleeing car before helping her partner.
Here we learn a bit about how the police investigated a crime and how unreliable eyewitness accounts are. The officer’s partner couldn’t remember the license number, and reported the car was a blue Vega. However, after weeks, the police department discovers that the car was actually a blue Comet.
Morris interviews everyone he can in his signature style, with his interviewees often looking directly into the camera. It creates an intimacy that draws you into the story. We hear from Adams and Harris, but also the police officers that investigated the crime, the lawyers that defended Adams, and the judge that viewed the case. Missing is the prosecutor that tried the case, and it’s unclear if that person simply refused, or had passed away before the film was made.
We also spend time with a police officer from David Harris’ hometown who had arrested him several times, and David’s friends. The officer talks about how when David was arrested, he would often lie about what he had done until he realized the police already knew what he had done. Then he would tell the truth.
His friends talk about David’s lack of conscience, and how he would often brag about crimes he committed, including the killing of the police officer. When the officer in his home town asked him about it, David led him to the murder weapon, which he had stashed in a swampy area behind his house. He was questioned by the police, who then arrested Randall Adams.
What’s interesting about this film is that it is not neutral, it has a viewpoint, and an agenda. Rather than asking the question of how the crime was committed, it’s asking the question: “Why was Randall Adams convicted of a crime so obviously committed by David Harris?”
The answer is as unsatisfying as it is infuriating. David Harris blamed Adams, and the police believed him, ignoring all evidence to the contrary. They wanted to convict someone, and Randall Adams was someone they could convict. Adams lawyer speculates that the prosecution didn’t want to try David Harris, who wouldn’t be eligible for the death penalty.
Regardless, the film makes a compelling case that Randall Adams was wrongfully convicted. It lays out it’s case carefully, sometimes going beyond the evidence presented in court. For instance, two of the witnesses for the prosecution might have been discredited by a woman who knew that they had planned to lie about their knowledge in order to collect the reward.
Other times, the film just allows the witness to discredit themselves. The film presents another witness who begins by explaining he always remembers everything. He then proceeds to fumble over the details of what he’s trying to remember, showing that he remembers almost nothing.
At the end of the film, it presents an audio interview from David Harris, in which he admits that he was the one that killed the police officer, and that he had lied to police, even being surprised that they believed him. It’s a chilling finale to the film.
This is one of my favorite documentaries of all time. Morris builds his case slowly, methodically, picking apart the prosecutions case by doing something that it is apparently hard for the justice system to do: listen.
He presents one person’s story, then the next person’s story, and allows the audience to make sense of it. It offers us the opportunity to ask the questions: Who is telling the truth? Who is lying? Who is most likely to have committed this crime?
The audience also must ask the question how can the justice system fail so badly? The film makes the case that the police officers in the case were blinded by the fact that the murder victim was a police officer and wanted a conviction no matter what. It’s also chilling to see how easy it was for the police officers and prosecutors to twist the facts and leave out information in order to secure their conviction.
The power of the prosecutor is similar to the power of film. They choose what to show you and what to leave it. And we are so easily manipulated.
It begs the question about what The Thin Blue Line might have left out. For example, the enthralling Netflix series Making a Murderer was criticized for leaving out information about it’s subjects past behavior that didn’t fit into their narrative.
It’s possible, but after the film was released, David Harris recanted his testimony, and Randall Adams was set free. That’s as much a vindication of the film as anything else.
The Double Feature
I really love documentaries, especially well-done ones. Documentaries in this era too often become about the documentarian themselves. I see way to many docs where the director suddenly becomes a character. I usually turn them off at this point. For me, that’s when a documentary fails. Documentaries can’t just be about the filmmaker.
The documentarian has to work like an ethnographer, watching the situation, gaining the trust of the participants, and understanding them. They then translate that into a story that the rest of us can understand.
Documentarians are researchers, exploring a topic to bring light to something that very few people know about. It’s a powerful responsibility, and both of these films do it wonderfully.
The semester is just about over the hump. I’m still working on my qualification exam. It’s getting tougher, but I have a lot of time. I just need to get a little bit done each day, and things will line up just fine. I’ve pushed the date back to January, since the schedule for the people that need to be there wasn’t really working out for December. I’m feeling some pressure. I noticed myself getting really upset about something fairly small today. I let it go quickly, but for about 10 minutes I was pretty angry. I have to watch out for moments like that, and get past them. That’s my challenge this month.
So what about next week’s films? I didn’t have an agenda going into this, but looking at my DVD shelf, a couple of samurai films caught my eye. Next week’s films are:
Akira Kurosawa – Yojimbo (1961)
Hideo Gosha – Three Outlaw Samurai (1964)
I’ve covered Kurosawa several times before, but as I looked back through my posts, I realized I haven’t done any Kurosawa samurai films. So here we are. Next week I’ll look at one of my favorite Kurosawa films, and a samurai film from another director I’ve never explored before.
See you next week.