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2005 Outstanding Achievement Awards: Errol Morris


The films of Errol Morris are remarkable for their lucid humanism and exceptional style. Whether he’s profiling a mole rat specialist, an execution device expert or the quirky inhabitants of a small Southern town, Morris allows his subjects the space to express themselves in their own dignified fashion.

A residing affection for the individual is at the core of Morris’ unique cinema. Throughout his films, he maintains a sense of patience and decorum, unusual in an age of quick judgements and flashy special effects. It’s an approach that has garnered him an Oscar®, international recognition and this year’s Outstanding Achievement Award from Hot Docs’ Board of Directors.

Before embarking on a career in cinema, Morris was working on a doctorate in philosophy; it’s a calling that clearly influences his filmmaking choices. Not many film artists are driven by epistemological concerns, but then Morris is nothing if not distinctive. The question “How do people know what they know?” is at the core of all his films.

It’s that philosophical underpinning that motivates him to pursue characters that are monomaniacal and often delusional. When individuals as disparate as Vietnam War architect Robert McNamara, physicist Stephen Hawking and topiary gardener George Mendonca are looked at through the same prism, the resulting point of view is sure to be in-depth and even-handed.

Morris has been acclaimed for his stylistic decisions, which clearly arise out of the same brainy perspective. Why not use dramatic recreations calling into question the nature of reality, even in the most urgent of his films, The Thin Blue Line? And was there a better composer for mid-period Morris than Philip Glass, whose repetitive melodies and rhythms so clearly echoed the director’s style and purpose? And why would you choose to satirize pet cemetery aficionados or old Southern coots or Holocaust deniers when you could simply ask them pointed questions, then revel in their eccentricities? Like the great French director Jean Renoir, Morris is willing to see the tragedy and the pleasure in the remark, “Everyone has their reason.”

The urge to know the concerns of individuals and to have their voices heard led to Morris’ greatest invention, the Interrotron. It’s the device that has allowed the director and other documentarians to create a true one-on-one approach to interviews.

Morris seats his subjects in front of his invention, which resembles a two-way mirror, and projects his face in front of a fixed lens. The subjects are allowed to relate to a phantasm, a representation of his human visage, behind the camera’s eye. Then, as the New Yorker’s Mark Singer observed, “Morris asks as few questions as possible, and lets the truth flow, along with alternating currents of benign disingenuousness, malignant prevarication, and potentially tragic false belief.”

Over the past quarter century, Morris has directed seven documentaries, a TV series, numerous commercials, an Oscar® short and public service announcements for John Kerry’s campaign. Thanks to the co-operation of the Cinematheque Ontario, we’re able to present all of Morris’ documentary features. As well, a selection of his commercials and Kerry spots will be shown as part of a special on-stage presentation.

Though his output could be larger, the astonishing fact is that this artist has been able to create a true, idiosyncratic vision on screen during a difficult time for auteur filmmaking.

Let’s leave the final words to Morris: “What remains the same over those 25 years is that people have a need to express themselves, people have a need to tell their stories in their own words to someone else …and thank goodness, because without it, I would be without a profession.”

Marc Glassman
Programmer, Outstanding Achievement Award Retrospective

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