Without question, Errol Morris’ The Thin Blue Line is one of my favorite films of all time. It’s not just one of my favorite documentaries; it’s one of my favorite films, period. That film tells a story that has thrilled me, chilled me, and made me want to take that ride again and again.
Errol Morris certainly doesn’t need me to expound on how brilliant he is (his awesome body of work speaks for itself), but The Thin Blue Line was the first documentary I experienced as a story (prior to that, documentaries tended to taste like medicine to me). All the elements were there: ominous beginning, exhilarating middle and a gasp-inducing ending. A terrific Philip Glass score didn’t hurt, either. But another thing that made the film so powerful was that it revealed something significant.
The Thin Blue Line told a story that shed light where there was darkness. I’m sorry, that sounded a little preachy. What I meant to say is that the film forced its viewers to see something that they wouldn’t have seen otherwise (among the many things it illuminated was how the legal system works – and how it doesn’t). Because of that film, I’ve become convinced that all great stories should be in the business of revealing something. Revelation is an important and undervalued part of telling stories.
Although I can’t take credit for it, my film students have grasped the importance of this light-shedding. In my Storytelling and Video Production class, my students were given the assignment to create documentary portraits and I was pleased to see what they chose to reveal.
Mallory Wade’s film, A Picture at a Time, is a self-portrait of the filmmaker; Gabrielle Powell’s Born Uniquely Able is a portrait of her mother; Stephanie Centeno’s The Garcias, is a portrait of her grandparents; and Jennifer Hall’s “The Beautiful Struggle” is a portrait of her sister. More than simply being impressive first films, these documentaries tell their stories by revealing information not apparent on the surface. All four filmmakers have carefully selected what they wanted to share, artfully peeling back layers of their subjects in order to show their audiences something of significance.
In a lecture discussing his book Believing is Seeing, Errol Morris spoke about the significant and surprising things he revealed in The Thin Blue Line – and the unforeseen consequences (both good and bad) that came from those revelations. Perhaps I should have warned my students that shining light in dark places doesn’t always make us feel good. Oftentimes, light shows us things we didn’t really want to see.
Link for The Beautiful Struggle