Is doubting the path to finding the "truth"?
Is doubting the path to finding the “truth”?
Writings of literature are often perceived as one of two; “truthful” or “dishonest.” What dictates the truthfulness or untruthfulness of a piece of writing or a form of representing non-fiction is the attitude of the perceiver who often looks at non-fiction through his own, judging lens. However, a balance between believing and doubting is an adequate path to take in the search for truth in a personal film, a written text, or a graphic presentation. Whether you are watching a film or reading a novel, you have to allow yourself to participate in a game known as “the Doubting game and Believing game” proposed by Peter Elbow. In his book “Writing without teachers,” Elbow argues that his goal is “to only make the doubting game more over and grant a legitimacy to the believing game.” He establishes that both the doubting game and the believing game proceed by indirection. The doubting game, nevertheless, seeks truths by looking for error rather that accepting all assertions as true. We have to be actively reading and/or watching any representation of non-fiction and allowing ourselves to be engaged in the doubting and believing game to find the truth.
Is there a right “truth”? Or a universal truth? I often pondered at this question wondering if I would ever be able to call something true or accurate representation of people, events, and places. Oxford Dictionary defines truth as “the quality or state of being true,” factual and accurate. But could not the truth mean one thing for one person and a different thing for another? Does this mean that the truth depends on the perception and attitude of the perceiver? If this is the case, I am going to allow myself to explore the truth by investigating if the visual techniques employed in the documentary The Thin Blue Line by Errol Morris invite the audience to participate in the doubting game in their search of the truth. This will then trigger the question of to what extent taking part in the doubting game presents documentaries as documents of factual information of non-fictional prose.
By using visual techniques, The Thin blue Line by Errol Morris, a documentary, narrates the investigation of the events of a crime involving the murder of a Dallas police officer. The camera introduces the audience to Randall Adams, the 28-year old man who is convicted of the murder, and David Harris, the 16-year old boy who has been a prime witness of the murder. Both Adams and Harris are responsible for narrating their own story and their own point of view on the events of the crime. The camera starts with Adams, dressed in a white jumpsuit with his name on it, a very serious facial expression, an upright posture and a constant tone of speaking. The camera then shifts to Harris to reveal this man wearing an orange jumpsuit, older than 16-years old, a smiling face, hand gestures and a playful tone of voice. Those details have with no doubt affected the way I perceived each character and thus the events, which would have been different if I were reading their testimonies out of a report since I would not be involved in this interaction; the interaction between the images and the events.
In the process of watching the documentary, I learned something about both Adams and Harris. First, I sympathized with Adams, though I blamed him initially when all the fingers were pointing at him, but I went back on my decision as I saw more of Harris and Adams. I saw that Harris looks like he has no remorse for anything he has done from his previous crimes, which made me doubt his testimony. Second, during the reenactments of the interrogations, I got more information about the inner thoughts of Adams. For instance, when he refused to take the gun, or refused to sign the paper until he was sure it was what he thought represented the reality of what happened. This showed me that Adams is truthful judging from what I saw. Did I let my emotions participate in the doubting game? Possibly. The camera took us, step by step inside the minds of Adams and Harris as they remembered the events of the crime. Did I believe the testimonies of those two men? Did I consider them authentic? Did I agree that they represented the truth? Well, I found myself participating in both a believing and a doubting game because I was basing some of my decisions on the appearance, tone of voice and attitude of both Adams and Harris to get to the truth about the real murderer.
As the events proceeded, a recurring scene is that of the reenactment of the killing of the police officer. The sound of the gun shooting, the car driving away in the distance, and the police officer falling to the ground, all showing the crime from different angles highlighting the underlying perspectives. The camera moves from this direction to the other in an attempt to paint the crime scene for the audience. Bam, Bam, Bam, the noise of the shooting and the police officer falling to the ground. A man with a bushy hair or a fur jacket around the neck, the audience wonders. Which model was the car? The foggy weather, the dark and the shooting keep playing throughout the film over and over again. Did the overdramatized reenactment of the murder scene made me doubt the legitimacy of the film? Well, I think that in the light of what the documentary was trying to convey, the reenactment enhanced my understanding of what might the events looked like. But, if I am already participating in the doubting game, aren’t the different reenactments constructed from varying witness testimonies? From their reconstructed memories about the events, which are as David Shields suggests “When memory is called to answer, it often answers back with deception” unreliable? This puts me in a position where I am not able to reach the truth. On one hand, the reenactments did enhance my understanding of the events by vividly inviting me to relive the event of the murder. On the other hand, the enactments with the noise, background and talking also function as asking me to not quickly accept what I see since it is reconstructed from memory. Therefore, the visual techniques of the documentary both enhanced and inhibited my search for the truth even though I tried to balance between doubting and believing.
David Harris turned out to be guilty. Pause here. An innocent man, Randal Adams stayed in prison for a crime he did not commit! We have two truths here. First, Adams is innocent for the murdering of the Dallas police officer. Second truth, Adams spent ten years of his life in the prison for a crime he did not commit. Adams testified that he did not commit the crime. Harris blamed Adams. The witnesses doubted what they testified. The female police officer doubted the model of the car she saw. The DA doubted the decision of the court. After The Thin Blue Line was published, it provided us with a different truth than the one that was agreed on at the time the murder was committed. This film gained reliability and credibility because it is a documentary, which according to Oxford Dictionary is defined as “The quality or state of being true,” which is supposed to present factual information. Now people have avoided the doubting game in their search for the truth and delved into the believing game after watching the documentary. Does this mean that the documentary is a reliable source to the truth? I don’t know if I have an answer to this question. Maybe, it could be. But I still hold the belief that truth is not universal and the audience has the chance to interpret what he perceives in his search for the truth. Elbow, nevertheless, asserts that the “believing game helps us find the truth.”
1. Morris, Errol, Dir. The Thin Blue Line. Miramax Films: 1988, DVD.
2. Elbow, Peter. Writing without teachers. NY: Oxford University Press, 1973. 196. Print.