Errol Morris: ‘There’s no guarantee you’ll find the truth. Sometimes you’re just lucky’

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The documentary film-maker discusses his Netflix series that takes in the CIA and conspiracy theories, and – he thinks – still has something to say about the era of ‘fake news’

29 Jan 2018 | Errol Morris | The Guardian

“There’s a quote that I have always liked in Jacques Tourneur’s film noir Out of the Past: “All I can see is the frame. I’m going in there now to look at the picture.” What does that mean to a detective? You know there’s something wrong with a story but you can’t put your finger on what it is.

Things don’t quite add up. Part of the effort in my recent Netflix project Wormwood was to construct a picture from various narrative fragments and pieces of evidence. But it’s even more complicated than that. You have various narratives, but part of the narrative is a desire to efface that narrative – to obscure it, to hide it.

What we know about the death in 1953 of army bioweapons expert Frank Olson comes primarily from a cache of documents given to the Olson family in 1975 by the director of the Central Intelligence Agency.

The “Colby documents” (named for then-CIA director William Colby) tell the story of Olson’s last 10 days on Earth. When you scrutinise them, as many have over the years, it’s hard not to imagine that things had been added and taken out. Revisions, elisions and contradictions abound.

You could say the central ambition of Wormwood is the pursuit of truth, and that would not be inaccurate – my pursuit of truth, Eric Olson’s pursuit of truth, that of the many other figures who have been involved over the years. But part of the story is also about the effacement of truth.

We sometimes think of the truth as being an undiscovered continent. (You’re landing on some beach somewhere and you say, “Aha! It’s the truth.”) But it doesn’t work like that. History is perishable. Documents can be destroyed. People die. Counter-narratives develop.

There’s truth, there’s a fact of the matter. But can we always access it? Wormwood is very much about that question. The limitations and the constraints on our access to truth. It’s not that truth is relative, or doesn’t exist, or that there’s no such thing as truth. Of course there’s such a thing as truth. But there’s no guarantee you’ll find it. Sometimes you’re just lucky.

Errol Morris (left) conducting an interview in Wormwood.
 Errol Morris (left) conducting an interview in Wormwood. Photograph: Netflix

There’s this idea that the further you pursue a story, the fewer unanswered questions there are. It’s usually not so simple. Often the pursuit of a story leads to endless additional questions that are unanswered and perhaps will never be answered. But this is no excuse for anti-curiosity – for denial, fear, apathy, despair … whatever.

A good investigator and storyteller must accept that some things will remain at best, ambiguous, and find a way to convey how and why that is so, as well as the implications of the uncertainty.

This was the inspiration for the drama in Wormwood. The drama isn’t re-enacting anything that we know to have happened. The drama is meant to bring viewers into a possibly apocryphal world shaped by the CIA to explain what happened.

It’s a way to immerse you in the complexities of the story – the competing accounts, the disagreements, the contradictions – so that you can try to puzzle through it yourself. To think about those 10 days, and how strange, how surreal, how unconvincing the account might be. The recreations in Wormwood take you into a mystery by allowing you to experience the attempts to cover it up.

We learn in Wormwood that part of the pursuit of truth is a fight with people who want to prevent us from finding it. It’s not a static thing, but rather an absurd fight, like a metaphysical chess game.

It’s not just the story of Eric Olson’s 60-year pursuit of the truth, not just the story of his father and what he did at Fort Detrick, not just the story of the US government’s attempts to deny and obfuscate what it did to Frank Olson. It’s all of the above.

Wormwood is as much about the present time as it is about the 1950s. This is not about something that isn’t relevant to the modern world. It’s completely relevant. To what extent can we trust the stories that are given to us by the government? Is the government hiding things?

Are we in the grip of a fake story, where the reality of what is going on is hidden from us? It should be an ongoing question for all of us.

The story of the cold war and what it meant for the US, and the institutional lying and self-deception that it created is a story at the heart of Wormwood, but it’s also pertinent to our present moment. That’s not to say that there are endless conspiracies.

It’s to say that we should always question the information that we’re given and try to see behind it. I like to think a healthy dose of skepticism is not a bad thing.

Wormwood is available on Netflix

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