The Thin Blue Line

The last of our Hot Docs selections was The Thin Blue Line (hot docs | imdb | rotten tomatoes), part of the Errol Morris Retrospective. I’ve wanted to see this movie for years, and was happy to find out that it would soon be released on DVD…but then I heard that it was coming to Hot Docs (along with Morris himself), and so I made sure that this made the short list.

Even knowing the impact that the film had, and the results it produced in overturning the conviction of Randall Adams, it was still captivating to watch. The style that Morris essentially created with this film was unlike most documentaries of the time, filled with re-enactments and repetitive imagery — “fetishistic”, as he put it — to the point where some questioned whether it was still a documentary. But as he said last night, it uses the real people to tell a real story, and it provoked a real result in a real man’s life.

We’ve found that in many cases the best moments at Hot Docs come afterward, in the Q&A session. This might have been more true last night than ever before; Morris shared all manner or stories about how the film was made, pieces he left out, and so on, often diverging wildly from one story to another until he’d give five answers for every question. There were many such insights, but two stick out:

  1. He’d made the movie quite by accident, having met the psychiatrist (“Dr. Death”) and reviewing old case files, we happened upon Randall Adams on death row and pursued the story for three years.
  2. Randall Adams actually sued Errol Morris after his release. Adams and his attorneys figured that Morris must be getting rich off the feature film, which is nearly impossible for a documentary, especially in the 80s, especially when Harvey Weinstein has hold of the financial reins. Morris recounted a quote from his wife: “Just because you’re a victim doesn’t mean you’re not as asshole.”

Throughout the film I was struck by the number of similarities to the case of the West Memphis Three: the violent crime, the public hunger for an arrest and the shoddy, rushed police work in an attempt to quickly convict, the reliance on extremely suspect witnesses, the overlooking of an obvious suspect, and the subsequent public outrage after exposure by the media (read Mara Leveritt’s Devil’s Knot or watch the documentary Paradise Lost by the same folks who brought you Some Kind Of Monster). If you haven’t seen The Thin Blue Line or you haven’t learned about the West Memphis Three, I urge you to do both. There is a terrifying chance of history not repeating itself.

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