Director Errol Morris has selected his Top 10 favorite documentaries for us. Here, he explains his choices. "These films exist in a twilight area between fact and fiction, and every single one of them forces you to ask the question: what is a documentary?"
Errol Morris' Top 10
"I first learned about documentary at the Pacific Film Archive in Berkeley in the 1970s. I'd seen various public affairs documentaries growing up – I remember in particular Edward R. Murrow and Harvest of Shame – but it was at the Pacific Film Archive that I became aware of documentary as something more than a species of journalism, as an art form. That's where I first saw Fata Morgana. Is it a documentary? Is it an art film? You tell me! That's one of the interesting things about it: it really doesn't belong in any one category.
"So that's the environment that formed – for want of a better way to describe it, because it sounds terribly pedantic – my philosophy of documentary. The documentaries I saw there were in many ways disconnected from social activism, and even journalism as such. Films like Man with a Movie Camera, a film on the border between reality and surreality, or Land Without Bread. Who could ever imagine such a film, combining these images with this absurd choice of music and Buñuel's strange, ironic, sometimes insane narration? The images are clearly documentary, about a certain people and a certain place, and yet you feel this enormous tension between that journalistic element and the final film.
"I was also very much influenced by Fred Wiseman. I'm still a fan, after all these years. He once expressed a kind of amazement that I liked his films, since our styles are so radically different. But I assured him that it wasn't style that interests me about documentary. Or in a way it is: the fact that documentary can incorporate such radically different styles has always fascinated me. Wiseman has taken the Direct Cinema style and turned it into something deeply ironic, often despairing, incredibly funny, perverse. He has a way of making you laugh at things that make you uncomfortable; that's certainly true in Welfare. Documentary should make you uncomfortable. It shouldn't just be an exercise in making you feel better about yourself. How can we make people feel better about themselves, without first asking the question: should people feel better about themselves?
"I picked a couple of films simply because they engage the idea of what it means to do an interview, which is part of my art form, such as it is. I think it's every interviewer's dream that in the middle of an interview, when your subject is not forthcoming, you get up out of your chair and just beat them to a pulp. Of course, that never happens – except in The Emperor's Naked Army Marches On. It such a strange, destabilizing, weird film. It's also why I included Tales of the Grim Sleeper. The interviews in that film are some of the strangest interviews I had ever seen. People seem at sea in their own heads: they're unclear on what they think, what they've seen, and yet they know they've seen something and they think something.
"Documentary isn't there just to give you reality; it's there to make you think about the connection between an image and reality, or a movie and the real world. Ross McElwee is one of the very few filmmakers who have that obsession with the nature of the film image. There's a scene in Bright Leaves about the love affair between Gary Cooper and Patricia Neal, where the question is: is this image from a fiction film recording something real about their relationship, or is it just recording the script? Is it pure documentary, or pure fiction, or a combination of both?
"One of the lessons I've learned from films like this is that every film is a combination of the controlled and the uncontrolled, the rehearsed and the unrehearsed. Even a film like Let There Be Light, which is heavily contrived and orchestrated, still preserves a very strong documentary element. I've always hated the cinema verité claim that if you just obey these rules, you'll get this "truth cinema." Because trying to figure out what the world is really like is an unending quest, a conundrum. My favorite films somehow seize on that strange relationship of images to the world.
"For someone like myself who's fascinated by how imagery changes based on our conceptions and preconceptions about it, Adam Curtis is stock-in-trade. I could have picked a whole number of his films, but It Felt Like a Kiss is the most radical. I've dabbled with stock footage in a lot of the things that I've done, but he's taken several steps further into the beyond here, composing an entire movie of repurposed imagery which has found a new home in a completely new context.
"Similarly, even though much of One Day in the Life of Andrei Arsenevitch consists of images from Andrei Tarkovsky's films, it's very much a Chris Marker film as well. Two of my absolute favorite filmmakers united in one extraordinarily unique and powerful film. It lives in a kind of twilight area between art and life, between the real and the created. In the end, it is about life becoming art: everything Marker says in the narration is about the interplay of art and life, and his own deep love of Tarkovsky's art.
"There's always the possibility of seeing something for the first time that really defeats all of your expectations of what documentary could or should be. Films should make you question the relationship of the film to the real world. That shouldn't be something that is simply given, accepted, taken for granted."