James Mooney: The Thin Blue Line between Fact and Fiction

Truth and Objectivity in the Work of Errol Morris


In his »Believing is Seeing« (2011), Morris addresses the claim made by Susan Sontag (»Regarding the Pain of Others« 2004) that Roger Fenton’s famous photograph »In the Valley of the Shadow of Death« is staged. Sontag’s accusation is that the fact the cannonballs shown strewn across the road were placed there by Fenton amounts to a distortion of the truth. For Morris, this is irrelevant – Fenton was merely recreating the earlier state of affairs before the road was cleared. He asks us to consider what difference it makes as to whether the cannonballs were scattered by Fenton or by Russian cannons. Morris himself is no stranger to staging; his award-winning documentary »The Thin Blue Line« (1988) employs the full gamut of cinematic devices – multiple reconstructions, film-noir elements, an emotive score by Philip Glass, etc. – in its defence of accused murderer Randall Adams. Morris’ view would seem to entail that a documentary maker (or war photographer, photo-journalist, etc.) is permitted to lie (use staging, posing) if it is in the service of truth. This paper will assess Morris’ position in relation to various philosophical theories of truth (correspondence, coherence, pragmatism). It will give rise to ontological and epistemic questions about the nature of film and its potential to provide an objective account of reality, as well as ethical issues concerning the role and responsibility of the filmmaker.