My blogging efforts have fallen as I find myself writing about events weeks after they have happened. Not good, but in the middle of the academic semester, with overdue articles piling up, it seems unavoidable. DOC NYC, run by the Thom Powers-Raphaela Neihausen partnership with plenty of eager supporters around the edges, is a wonderfully ambitious film festival which caters to my passions for documentary. Plus it is in my home city.
There had been various efforts to showcase documentaries in the past but they either filled niche topics (eg Human Rights Watch Film Festival) or never quite took off. Home town festivals have their pluses and minuses. They are convenient (no need to book a plane or pay for a hotel) but ironically even when they are crosstown (or downtown in my case), it is not always easy to get there. And since since the New York Film Festival coincides with the Giornate del Cinema Muto in Pordenone, I haven’t been able to attend for the last several years. Anyway, this year DOC NYC provided an opportunity to catch some must-see films and occasionally walk into a screening without any expectations and be surprised.
The opening night film was The Unknown Known, Errol Morris’s portrait of Donald Rumsfeld. Let me confess a certain pride of indirect authorship which is undoubtedly unjustified. In other situations this is called “conflict of interest.” Amanda Branson Gill, one of the film producers, took my Documentary Film & Photography course (co-taught with Laura Wexler) many years ago. She subsequently brought her paper for that course, which was on the photographs of Abu Ghraib, to Errol and Standard Operating Procedure was the result. Co-producer on that film, she is one of the producers of The Unknown Known.
Let me just state–flat out–that I think The Unknown Known is brilliant. I am with the 75% of the critics who seem to love it, though Errol and his team are always sensitive to the negative responses, such as Todd McCarthy in the Hollywood Reporter who started his review:
“Lightning doesn’t strike twice for Errol Morris interviewing a controversial U.S. government war hawk in The Unknown Known, an unsuccessful attempt to get inside the head, under the skin or through the looking glass of Bush administration Secretary of Defense and Iraq War proponent Donald Rumsfeld.”
and then goes on to say
“Morris tediously recycles points he already made in his 2008 look at the Abu Ghraib prison scandal in Standard Operating Procedure.”
Really? McCarthy is often an astute reviewer but I have to respectively disagree. The relationship of The Unknown Known to Standard Operating Procedure is complex but complementary, not redundant. Rumsfled appears in seven or eight snapshots, visiting the Abu Ghraib prison while roughly the same number of the infamous Abu Ghraib photographs appear in The Unknown Known. I say approximate but I am all but certain that the number and function of these photographs are not casual or approximate. Their relationship simply is a topic for future exploration and research.