Errol Morris sits in his office in Cambridge in the US. A horse’s head hangs from the wall in the dimly lit room, while snow falls outside.
The 65-year-old former private investigator’s latest film, The Unknown Known (2013), about Donald Rumsfeld, was born out of a fascination with a different kind of precipitation: The 20,000 internal memos that Rumsfeld called “snowflakes”, produced over his six years as defense secretary for George W. Bush.
One memo, dated several months before 9/11, contained what became Rumsfeld’s foundation for invading Iraq.
With a subject heading: To Discuss with P, he wrote: “Known knowns, known unknowns,and unknown unknowns. The absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.”
In March 2003, Rumsfeld answered journalists asking about the links between Saddam Hussein and terrorists with those definitions.
Morris’ film title, however, describes a state that Rumsfeld failed to grasp.
Philosopher Slavoj Zizek said Rumsfeld forgot to add a crucial fourth term: the unknown knowns: “The disavowed beliefs, suppositions and obscene practices we pretend not to know about, although they form the background of our public values.”
Morris, after interviewing Rumsfeld for 34 hours, wonders if Rumsfeld had not been aware of what he did not know in the first place.
In 2003, as Rumsfeld was making the case for invading Iraq, Morris released The Fog of War, an in-depth interview with former US defense chief Robert McNamara, who publically stated that the US-Vietnam War was a mistake and that the US had carried out war crimes.
The film won an Oscar for best documentary.
Today, Morris is one of the executive producers of Joshua Oppenheimer’s eye-opening documentary The Act of Killing, nominated for the same award.
Morris’ career as documentary filmmaker spans three decades and covers a host of topics, from Gates of Heaven (1970), about a pet cemetery business, to The Thin Blue Line (1988), which freed a man falsely convicted of murder.
An underlying thread connects Morris’ films, he says. “I’m fascinated by all these kinds of questions: What is our relationship to the past? Do we ever see ourselves and what we’ve done? These are the questions that are the heart of almost everything that I do.”
For Morris, the key question is what the thoughts of those behind such mass killings are.
The lack of satisfactory answers in his 34-hour interview with Rumsfelf reminded Morris of Hannah Arendt’s notion of the banality of evil, which she wrote of after following the trial of Adolf Eichmann.
Morris said he watched Margarethe Von Trotta’s film on Hannah Arendt the previous night. “She engaged [with] this issue. She thought about this issue [….] In some crucial moments where you thought that there should be something there was nothing.”
He continues. “It was not that Eichmann was not really such a bad guy or was so ordinary but that somehow ultimately he could give no real account. It’s one of the frightening things in my recent Rumsfeld movie. I’m left with Chinese fortune cookie slogans platitude — these evasions — but I never really have a feeling that he had engaged with any of it.”
This is a depressing and different conclusion from The Fog of War. Morris said his wife, art historian Julia Sheehan, likens McNamara to the Flying Dutchman, who flies around the world seeking redemption, and Rumsfeld to Lewis Carroll’s Cheshire Cat, who cannot stop grinning.
In The Fog of War, some focus on McNamara’s admission of guilt and remorse, finding redemption in the elderly man’s tearful regrets about the American, Japanese and Vietnamese who perished in the wars he fought.
Morris said that such a focus was skewed.
While McNamara’s admissions that the war was wrong were remarkable, he says that viewers should not mistake the film for an apology.
“People like stories of redemption,” according to Morris. “But there is nothing redemptive about the story. [It’s a] story about a man who’s involved in the death of millions of people. He’s a war criminal properly considered.”
“I liked him, but he was a war criminal. There is no redemption for anything.”
Morris agreed to executive produce The Act of Killing after watching a rough cut of the film, which depicts boastful killers in Medan re-enacting how they murdered suspected “communists” in the 1965 Indonesian genocide.
“It’s amazing. I’ve never seen anything like it,” Morris said. “I thought it was a great achievement.”
Morris said he knew nothing about the period in Indonesia before the film. “I remember of this feeling of shock, when I realized, wait a second, when we’re talking about 1964 and 1965, these are years in which we escalated the war in Vietnam.”
“I began to wonder if there’s a connection. There had to be a connection somehow to Vietnam and Indonesia,” he continues. “Then I read this one extraordinary passage in Bradley Simpson’s book Economists with Guns. He cites Robert S. McNamara, saying that the war in Vietnam was really unnecessary because we already have prevented the dominoes from falling in Indonesia by killing whatever the figure is.”
For Morris, The Act of Killing also offers no redemption.
On the film’s final scene, where Anwar Congo retched on the roof where he killed his victims, Morris said: “You can vomit as much as you want in whatever roof top you want. You can cry. You can say you were sorry [or] ‘I don’t know what I was thinking’ but it doesn’t bring back the millions of people that are dead.”
“They remain dead”.
Prodita Sabarini, Contributor, Cambridge, the US
Published in The Jakarta Post| People | Sat, January 25 2014