Event Review: Q&A with The Unknown Known director Errol Morris.

Q&A held at The Ritzy Cinema, London, March 19 2014.

Click here for Smokescreen's The Unknown Known Review


In a lively Q&A held at the Ritzy Cinema in London, filmmaker Errol Morris (The Fog of War, The Thin Blue Line) discussed his new documentary The Unknown Known. The film sees Oscar-winning filmmaker Morris interview, one on one, the George W. Bush Administration’s former US Secretary of Defence, Donald Rumsfeld. The conversation covers Rumsfeld’s entire career, from his early days as a congressman in the 1960s, through to the 2003 invasion of Iraq. Rumsfeld remains a stoic and reserved figure throughout, offering no mea culpa’s for what many now regard as an illegal and disastrous war. Morris, challenged by interviewer Jeremy Hardy and some audience members about his non-confrontational approach to the former US Defence Secretary, at times seems to be defending his film more than explaining the genesis and filming of the project. The following is an edited version of the highlights of the event.

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JH: “Obviously there is a comparison between this film and The Fog of War, the film about Robert McNamara, (the former US Secretary of Defence in the Vietnam War era). He is a very different man to Donald Rumsfeld. I watched it again this morning, I was struck by how McNamara is a very troubled man, a clever man, and insightful man, with a lot to say. At the end he says “Ive said as much as I want to say” and he wont answer your question as to why he didn't come out against the war sooner. He says quite a lot. Rumsfeld I feel says almost nothing except these…fridge magnet epigrams.”

EM: “I call it ‘Chinese Fortune Cookie Philosophy.’ And that is being altogether kind.”

JH: “Do you think with ‘enhanced interrogation’ you could've got more out of him? Or is that all there is?”

EM: “For the record I don’t believe that enhanced interrogation techniques work. Unless the objective is simply to torture people. Years ago I had been a private investigator. To me the best way to find things out is to let people talk, to gain their trust. To listen carefully to what is being said. I really don’t have a complete basis for comparison, I don’t have a set of thumbscrews, Ive never water-boarded anybody.”

JH: “But do you accept you got from Rumsfeld all that there was to get? You gave him enough rope to hang himself. But you make a conscious decision not to nail him.”

EM: “Lying is a really complicated notion, if you’ll let me explain. In order to lie, you have to know you are telling untruths, aware of it on some level. Dissembling. Prevaricating. To me at the heart of his movie, is that question: is he lying?
I’ve been here for 3 or 4 days now, I’ve done many interviews. One journalist asked me if Rumsfeld was being insincere. I said: ‘if he was insincere, the story would be so much better’. What makes this story so much more horrifying is the possibility that he is being completely sincere. The journalist asked me if Rumsfeld’s smile was disingenuous, to which my reply was: ‘No’. The smile is completely sincere. What you see is what you get, the look of supreme self satisfaction.”

JH: “What was your relationship with Rumsfeld? Did you have to soften him up? What did you agree with him?”

EM:“I don’t think he cared.”

JH:“Had he seen The Fog of War?”

EM:“I gave him a copy of The Fog of War. He never ever said he saw it. He just said he hated it. He also said that McNamara had absolutely nothing to apologise for. So my guess is, someone told him that somewhere in that film is a version of a mea culpa. And he knew nothing like that was ever gonna happen on his watch.”

JH: “Was anything out of bounds with him in the interview?”  

EM:“I told him very early on that I had to have editorial control. And fortunately he agreed. He had no control over the final cut. I told him I wanted to make a movie within a one-person-one-room construct, like The Fog of War. I interviewed Rumsfeld, no one else. All that was agreed upon and understood early on. But there is another part to your question — did I want to avoid asking him questions which I knew would cause him to get up and leave the studio? And the answer honestly is kind of…yes. And its based on a premise that there’s something to be said for a non adversarial interview style. Whats interesting to me with his film, and hopefully to others, its not so much the answers to the questions, it is not clear that any kind of answers are supplied, it is the unexpected moments where I feel something is revealed. For example at one point I ask him if he ever read the torture memos which came out of Vice President Dick Cheney’s Office. And he said simply ‘No, I’m not a lawyer.’ Yes, I think he was being candid. He never read them. That is the really appalling reality.


There are other moments. For example he denies that the American people were ever to a degree confused over the link between Iraq and Al-queda. Its made abundantly clear in the film that what he is saying is untrue. He claims for example that enhanced interrogation techniques never migrate from Guantanamo Bay to Iraq and Afghanistan. So I read him the Schlesinger report, which uses the same word ‘migrated’ and confirms the techniques did migrate. By the way, I made a movie about it too: Standard Operating Procedure

Those privates at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq, once they walked onto the site and started taking pictures, from day one they were essentially documentary photographers. What did they see? Well, you heard Rumsfeld in my film read the list of enhanced interrogation techniques, he reads the whole damn thing. He even stops himself at one point to say: ‘good grief, thats a lot of stuff!' What you have there is a description of what those privates were photographing in Abu Ghraib.  Who’s kidding who here? Maybe I’m wrong, feel free to yell at me, but to me it is very powerful to simply present this stuff to him, and observe the reaction. It isn't Nixon vs Frost, nor is it intended to be.”

JH: “But it isn't The Fog of War either. Rumsfeld doesn't explain to us why the Iraq War happened in any way.”

EM: “We were talking about this in the car on the way over here. I was complaining about the frequent comments I have read in reviews that this film ‘is not as satisfying as The Fog of War.’ Self serving it may be of me to say so, but I think it is better than The Fog of War. Unlike that film, it doesn’t suffer from some faux redemption that makes people feel better for no reason. FUCK all of you! There is no reason to feel good ABOUT ANY OF THIS! And if I allow you a movie that offers you that luxury, I should be ashamed rather than proud of myself!

Rumsfeld does offer an explanation, like McNamara. I’ve just written an essay in the opinion section of the New York Times on the ‘philosophy’ of Donald Rumsfeld. How many people here have seen Adam Curtis’s The Power of Nightmares? Well, stating perhaps the obvious, I am an Adam Curtis fan. And one of the most powerful sections of his film is the section on ‘Team B’ : how the Ford Administration created a group that would simply challenge intelligence provided by the CIA. An excuse to expand the military budget, to scuttle detente, and so forth. We could argue whether or not these ideas are on par with the ‘Domino Theory’ (the theory McNamara subscribed to that one Communist victory in one state would swiftly result in others), I would argue that they are. When you look at many of these ideas carefully, what is the net result? Is it to devalue evidence. Evidence is replaced with dogma. Is that an idea? Unfortunately it is. 

I feel that with the Bush Administration, there was a step back to a much earlier period. Lets call it ‘pre enlightenment’. I see Galileo arguing with the Inquisition. Does evidence count for anything if you can just hired your own panel of experts to tell you what you want to hear? And what did Rumsfeld want to hear? Well, he tells us very early on in the movie: this insane contradiction: preparing for war can lead to war, but failure to prepare to war can also lead to war. So Rumsfeld concluded: “lets just go to war! Lets ramp up the military budget!”

In my essay I compare it to Chicken Little. Chicken Little is hit on the head by an acorn, and concludes that the sky must be falling. Well, we can’t really fault Chicken Little for a lack of imagination. And so Chicken Little runs around the farmyard informing the other animals. But Foxy Loxy, observing all of this, spies an opportunity and eats all the animals. The moral to the story is, if Chicken Little had been just a little less imagination she might still be alive today.

And there’s the ‘absence of evidence is not evidence of absence’ issue. It has often been attributed to your Astronomer Royal, Martin Rees, who I interviewed once. He doesn't really want to take credit for it, but it was a phrase used in the context of extra terrestrial intelligence. If we don’t hear intelligent signals from outer space, does that really mean there is nobody out there? Rumsfeld uses that logic for WMD in Iraq. So we go into Iraq, and we don’t find any WMD. Well, EXCUSE ME! That IS evidence, NOT the absence of evidence. It’s a really tricky and pernicious use of language.”


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