Playback: Errol Morris' Gates Of Heaven
Before I was a particularly seasoned documentary viewer, I had an epiphany. At the time, I thought it was about documentary in particular, but now I realize it’s about extraordinary filmmaking in general. It is an idea that informs my own filmmaking, and is a standard by which I judge others.
It came about 30 minutes into Errol Morris’ superb film, Gates of Heaven. Upon watching this five-minute scene in the film, I realized that while great documentaries usually purport to be about something specific, they are often about something very different than their narrative pretext. Nominally, Gates of Heaven is about those who dream of running pet cemeteries. It tells the story of those who fail, those who succeed, and those who bury their pets there. But in this brief scene, Morris show us that with Gates of Heaven he is actually exploring a more universal story about the things that drive us, the things that we want and strive for—essentially, about what it is to be human.
Now, Gates of Heaven is not the only film that tells the large story by telling the small one. Is Hoop Dreams really about basketball? Many of us strive to achieve this depth, with varying levels of success. But for most of us, the pretext of the film—its purported story—sits a level above the subtext—its deeper meaning—asking the viewer to reach for it, grab at it, analyze it. But Morris lays bare this divide between pretext and subtext and achieves a moment of unparalleled clarity and artistic veracity.
When Morris interviewed Woman X, an old woman who lives on a farm adjacent to a failing pet cemetery, he must have asked her a question. What it was, I can only guess. Did he say, “How do you feel about the cemetery closing?” or “What do you do with your animals when they die?” or perhaps “I’m Errol Morris, and I’m making a film about pet cemeteries." In any event, when Woman X responds, she muses briefly on the subject of animals and burials and cemeteries, but she moves off topic rather quickly. She talks about being ill and how she can no longer walk. How she dreams of having a car, and being mobile again. About the things her husband used to always tell her when he was alive. About her son, who mistreats her, leaving her alone among strangers. And then, towards the end of the five-minute, uncut, stream-of-consciousness, the ultimate conclusion: “I’ve been through so much, I don’t know how I stayed alive.”
It is so close to the direct expression of her psyche, unmitigated by story, pretext or pretense. Morris has brought us to a place where the filmmaking is purely about what it is to be human. I love making documentary films because it teaches me about life. It’s really that simple. My travels as a filmmaker have taken me into worlds normally closed to an outsider. And, as a viewer, those films that let me take those journeys with the filmmaker are, in my book, the most masterful achievements.
Director/producer Liz Garbus is co-founder of Moxie Firecracker, Inc., a documentary production company in New York. Her credits include the Academy Award®-nominated The Farm: Angola, USA, and The Execution of Wanda Jean. She is currently editing her next documentary feature, Waxter Girls, a coming-of-age story inside Maryland's juvenile justice system.