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  • Film Truth in the Age of George W. Bush
  • Charles Musser (bio)

Nonfiction film practices have frequently mobilized notions of truth.1 These have changed over time, from the US-based Veriscope ("truth viewer" in Latin) in the late 1890s to Dziga Vertov's kino pravda ("film truth" in Russian) in the 1920s and cinéma vérité ("truth cinema" in French) in the 1960s. In the late 1970s and 1980s, critics—making use of Althusser, deconstruction, and post-modernism—often savaged the application of truth value to documentary theory and practice. Using the remarkable success of The Thin Blue Line (US, 1988) for leverage, Errol Morris reasserted its importance to documentary even as he attacked cinéma vérité for setting back nonfiction film practice by a generation (excepting only Frederick Wiseman!).2 Morris established a powerful conjunction between film truth and the law that might be called "legal film truth." Although his truth claims in The Thin Blue Line are sustained by many supporting elements with antecedents in prior nonfiction film practice, its fundamental formulation is quite simple. The courts have established a legal truth—in this case that Randall Adams is guilty of killing a police officer. The consequence of this truth is to be his execution. Morris's documentary shows that this judicial truth (a particular form of state truth) is a lie and asserts a new truth (a legal film truth): Adams is not "guilty beyond a reasonable doubt." Moreover, there is more than doubt: Adams is "innocent." As an extra bonus, Morris identifies the actual murderer: David Harris, who effectively confesses to the crime.

The Thin Blue Line, along with Chris Choy and Rene Tajima's Who Killed Vincent Chin? (US, 1988), inaugurated a new cycle of films, a new genre of the courtroom documentary with more than twenty major documentaries including Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky's Brother's Keeper (US, 1992) and [End Page 9] Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills (US, 1996), Nick Broomfield's Aileen Wuornos: The Selling of a Serial Killer (US, 1993) and (with Joan Churchill) Aileen Wuornos: The Life and Death of a Serial Killer (US, 2003), Choy's Shot Heard 'Round the World (US, 1997), Morris's own Mr Death: The Rise and Fall of Fred A. Leuchter, Jr. (US, 1999), Andrew Jarecki's Capturing the Friedmans (US, 2003), and Jean-Xavier de Lestrade's Murder on Sunday Morning (FR/US, 2001). This emergent genre or cycle has been primarily an American phenomenon linked to the battle around the death penalty and the abuse of our civil liberties—perhaps even the way the need for scapegoating and punishment takes precedence over justice and truth; its more international counterpart is undoubtedly the Human Rights documentary. Although there have been other important genres and developments in documentary, the formation that is centered around legal film truth (AKA the courtroom documentary) has been, I would argue, the keystone for American documentary practice during the fifteen-year period between 1988 and about 2003. Although this strand of documentary continues to the present day, it was in some sense transformed or superseded by a new period or formation that began to emerge in 2002, though its origins can be traced to the night of the 2000 presidential elections.

Film Truth, The Latest Turn(s)

Shifts in the conception and construction of truth in documentary have occurred for a multiplicity of reasons. Filmmakers have sometimes explored an approach until it has become overly familiar and lost its force. More generally these shifts have been linked to important changes in the body politic, to earthshaking events, cultural and intellectual developments, and to technological change.3 The most recent turns in American documentary have been in response to overarching political realities, though these changes coincided with significant technological innovations that deeply shaped its articulation. A rapid series of events—the troubled 2000 presidential election (which many considered stolen), the al-Qaeda assaults of 9/11, the resulting "war on terror" and the Iraq War—have changed the political landscape and produced radical shifts in the daily lives and concerns of Americans. One result of this changed landscape has been an emboldened...


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