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DOC NYC 2013: Errol Morris’s “The Unknown Known” and the Mysteries of Donald Rumsfeld

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Errol Morris’s The Unknown Known opened DOC NYC 2013.

DOC NYC, now North America’s largest documentary film festival, opened last night in New York City, not with a bang, but with more of a contemplative head-scratcher, and, occasionally, hair-puller. And that’s a great thing, by the way, for deep-thinking documentary fans.

Errol Morris’s The Unknown Known, a one-on-one interview with cagey former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, kicked off the fest, which continues until November 21st.

The film provides some eye-opening revelations (for me, at least), such as Rumsfeld saying he wanted to resign after the Abu Ghraib prison revelations, but Errol Morris films are more about greater, universal truths than specific ones (not that that hasn’t stopped him from freeing a man from death row), and so the strongest impression the film made on me was how masterfully he has redefined the talking head documentary when that particular head is in his hands.

I love Morris for his charming interjections (“So, are you saying that stuff just happens?” he asks). But as much as his formal flights of fancy and music can make my heart soar, I sometimes find his aesthetics a bit too rich, such as having his viewers float languidly through pretty clouds as we hear a control tower operator trying to reach the planes on 9/11.

A far more beguiling subject than Rumsfeld, in fact, was Morris himself. The filmmaker came out to speak after the screening and he was fascinating. He called making The Unknown Known a “labor of hate.” After taping 30-plus hours, he said he still doesn’t understand Rumsfeld.

There is no “cloven hoof” that he found, but Morris discussed notions of the “banality of evil,” and, in Rumsfeld, it was his “absence of something” that may have been his most defining characteristic.

Unlike the Defense Secretary during the Vietnam war, Robert McNamara, whom Morris profiled in The Fog of War, Rumsfeld appears to have no remorse for his deeds. Morris was most flummoxed by Rumsfeld’s “irony deficit disorder,” which makes him the least Jewish person Morris has ever met, he cracked.

The director said he usually doesn’t like his own films, and that, in fact, he likes this one, precisely because the other films tend to be portraits of something that is there, whereas this one is of something that isn’t.

In other words, Morris likes The Unknown Known because it’s so unsatisfying, which reaffirms that Morris is indeed more of an artist, happiest living in the questions than in being the news journalist or — God forbid! — the social-activist filmmaker, who wants to rally around a definitive statement.

It was a great beginning to a festival that promises more than 100 films and panels. Speaking of panels, Morris is going to be speaking at 5 PM today (Friday, Nov. 15), and you should definitely go if you can. He’s a great, intriguing speaker.

And I’ll be moderating a panel on Monday (Nov. 18) at 2 PM. It’s called “Shoot Your Doc: Filming Outside Your Turf,” and we’ll be discussing docs Death Metal Angola, Deepsouth, and Detropia with the directors of those films (respectively; Jeremy Xido, Lisa Biagiotti and Rachel Grady, who will join without her other half, Heidi Ewing.) We’ll have a lot of great stuff to chew on, such as how filmmakers gain trust in a community, how to think outside the box, and what to do when things get too intimate. And, maybe, we’ll even get to discuss how a filmmaker approaches the unknown known. It should be interesting. Come on down — we’ll be at the IFC Center!

Errol Morris at a Q&A for The Unknown Known at DOC NYC 2013, November 14, 2013.

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Tom Roston
Tom Roston
Tom Roston is a guest columnist for POV's documentary blog. He comes to us as a ten-year veteran of Premiere magazine, where he was a Senior Editor, and where he wrote the column, Notes from the Dream Factory. Tom was born and raised in New York City. He graduated from Brown University and started his career in journalism at The Nation and then Vanity Fair. Tom has also written for The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, GQ, New York, Elle and other publications. Tom's favorite documentaries are: 1. Koyanisqaatsi - Godfrey Reggio 2. Hoop Dreams - Steve James 3. The Up series - Michael Apted 4. Crumb - Terry Zwigoff 5. Capturing the Friedmans - Andrew Jarecki
  • Melissa Greene

    After dismal reception of Standard Operating Procedure and critical and financial failure, Morris apparently abandoned Participant Media’s Diane Hope Weyermann as his key muse and sought additional help. Given Qatar funding for Participant films and dark cloud hanging over Weyermann and Participant — http://participantwatch.tumblr.com — he may have wished he’d relied more upon Molly Thompson/A&E and her successful team, et al. His Rumsfeld effort is a confused and confusing mess–actually an embarrassment given the material and amazing talent that could have used the undoubtedly exorbitant budget to make a necessary film.