Even before it was cool, Nancy Buirski has been a tireless champion for low-budget documentary films.
The Thin Blue Line
...because if you're still wondering if movies are just an excuse to sell popcorn, then you need to watch "The Thin Blue Line" – Errol Morris' groundbreaking documentary that actually saved a man’s life. Sometimes referred to as the first non-fiction film noir, "The Thin Blue Line" incorporated dramatic recreations and Hitchcockian devices to investigate the story of a man wrongly convicted of murder. The film blurs conventional boundaries between art and activism, as well as documentary and narrative film, all in Morris’ characteristic pursuit of truth.
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Saving a man from death row is probably too high a bar for most films. However, "The Thin Blue Line" does show the power of movies to have an impact outside the cinema (or living room, man cave, streaming device, etc). Morris explicitly set out to make a film that would help Randall Adams, the wrongly accused cop killer, in his fight for justice. About a year after the film’s release, the court reopened Adams’ case and ultimately reversed his conviction. While other factors certainly helped, observers largely attributed this success to Morris’ film. Indeed, the director and his subject stayed in touch until Adams’ death – from natural causes – in 2010.
"The Thin Blue Line" has a visual style that makes it distinct from conventional documentaries. For the interviews, Morris filmed his subjects straight on, so that they look directly at the camera. This effect allows the viewer to evaluate the person talking, as much of the film revolves around differing accounts of the events in question and the credibility of eye witnesses. Morris also filmed cinematic reenactments of testimony to help the viewer determine the validity of what may have happened. The film’s use of dramatic, artificial lighting falls more in line with the heavily stylized cinema du look than the “pure documentary” of cinema verite. This blended format even proved so controversial at the time that it disqualified the film from that year’s Best Documentary category at the Oscars.
By reopening a closed murder case, "The Thin Blue Line" forces the audience to grapple with the difficult realities of truth. Many of the individuals in the film blindly accepted the prosecution’s version of the case because it suited their needs or confirmed their existing biases. Morris' film shows how this self-deception can become so engrained that it replaces the truth altogether. In a kind of paradox, the film presents “fictional” recreations of events from interviews and testimony that question the validity of the accepted version. Critics of this approach have claimed that "The Thin Blue Line" is not a true objective documentary, but activist non-fiction. For Morris, the higher truth of Adams’ innocence was more important than the idea of cinematic truth.
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