Documentary

TIFF ’16: Errol Morris shares his labor of love

The famed filmmaker talks to realscreen about The B-Side, a documentary about his long-time friend Elsa Dorfman, ditching the Interrotron and taking a multi-camera approach.
September 14, 2016

Errol Morris‘ latest documentary, The B-Side: Elsa Dorfman’s Portrait Photography, which held its international premier at TIFF on Sept. 12, is very much a labor of love.

The film is about Elsa Dorfman, a gifted analogue photographer known for taking people’s portraits using the rare, large-size Polaroid Land 20×24 camera (a photographic format she discovered in the 1980s), but who, despite a profound talent, operated very much under the radar. In making the film, Morris and his production crew weren’t primarily driven by academic or analytical interest, or by deadlines and budgets, but rather their mutual affection for the film’s central character.

The B-Side follows Dorfman as she shares the stories with Morris behind her archived collection consisting mostly of the “b-sides,” the term from which the film’s title is drawn. Dorfman would always take at least two 20x24s portraits per session, with her clients purchasing only one. The “b-sides” were the ones her clients overlooked, the imperfect portraits that are “perfectly wonderful” when revisited. Morris told realscreen it’s also a term analogous to her career.

“The ‘b-side’ describes [her career] in every sense other than the fact of the excellence of the imagery she created. That was the ‘a-side,’” he said.

For Morris, the desire to bring Dorfman’s story to the screen was driven by his personal connection with the artist. The pair have long been close friends. They first met in 1988 — the same year he released his seminal doc, The Thin Blue Line — when he and his family moved to Cambridge, Massachusetts, where Dorfman also lives and works.

“If I could be more like Elsa, that’s a good goal. A really fabulous artist, fabulous friend and a person who’s just unendingly loving and loyal. And I make her sound as if she’s uncritical, but she’s anything but uncritical. She’s one of the most critical people that I’ve ever met, but she’s also one of the most loving people that I’ve ever met. To have her as a friend is a good thing,” he said.

On why he ultimately decided to make a film about his dear friend, Morris told realscreen, “It was my feeling that Elsa had never really been given her due and my desire to, at least on some small part, remedy that, to bring her to the attention of a wider audience.”

At the same time, he admitted Dorfman’s low profile was partially by the artist’s design:

“If anything I think she’s a self-effacer rather than a self promoter. She has quite clearly a self-deprecating sense of humor. She even says in the movie that promoting herself to a gallery, getting gallery shows, selling her work to a gallery, just didn’t square with her temperament because so much of Elsa’s art is about her relationships with people. In fact, most of it is. To have your picture taken by Elsa is to become friends with her.”

Morris finally decided to pull the trigger on production in January 2016 after Dorfman formerly announced her intention to retire in an article in the New York Times, a decision linked to the impending puissance of digital technology in photographic portraiture. The doc took only six months to make.

“We just started [production]. We went to Elsa’s garage and started shooting,” he told realscreen, financing the film himself from the first shoot up until Moxie Pictures, the company that represents the decorated documentarian for his commercial work, partnered with him on financing.

According to Morris, “There’s always a point where you have to go to other people to keep going, but this [film] was started due to the goodwill of a lot of people who were working on it.”

Moxie CEO/co-owner Robert Fernandez joined The B-Side as an executive producer alongside Morris’ wife, Julia Sheehan. The film had its world premiere screening the week before its TIFF premiere at the Telluride Film Festival in Colorado. So far, said Morris, the film has had a number of distribution offers though nothing’s been agreed to yet. New York-based Submarine Entertainment is handling international sales for the film, which will also be appearing at the New York Film Festival, Chicago International Festival, and The International Documentary Film Festival Amsterdam.

The B-Side celebrates Dorfman’s life, a filmed portrait of a skilled portrait photographer, who, as a hidden treasure amongst the pantheon of great American artists, found herself making friends of subjects and subjects of friends — not just everyday people, but also intellectual and artistic luminaries like Bob Dylan, Jonathan Richman, Robert Creely, Robert Lowell, Charles Olson, and Allan Ginsberg, with whom she shared an especially close friendship until his death in 1997.

Many of Dorfman’s famous subjects feature in the film by way of “b-side” prints Dorfman reveals to Morris as they leaf through the massive photo archive kept in her small Cambridge studio.

While Morris said his experience making The B-Side didn’t feel any different than tonally divergent docs like The Fog of War or The Unknown Known — despite its personal, tender nature — there was one key difference: the absence of his trademark “Interrotron.” Instead, for The B-Side, he opted for a multi-camera approach, which allowed him to effectively capture Dorfman moving around her studio, which is housed in her garage.

He’s also been using the multi-camera approach on a yet-to-be-formally announced project for Netflix, an original six-part docu-series, which will reportedly have an element of true crime. When pressed for details, Morris was cagey, but he did offer up a tidbit on his experience working with the global SVOD.

“Netflix has been fantastic. The project wouldn’t exist without them. I wanted to do something different and Netflix has been solidly behind me,” he said.

Morris added that, in terms of documentaries, Netflix’s platform offers access to a wider audience and gives viewers the opportunities to see docs they wouldn’t have otherwise seen. He joins a growing list of documentarians working with the platform to create original features and series, including Werner Herzog, whose feature doc (and TIFF selection) Into the Inferno, will be premiering on the streaming platform Oct. 28.   

The B-Side: Elsa Dorfman’s Portrait Photography screens again at TIFF on today, Sept. 14 at 4:45 p.m. ET at Isabel Bader Theatre, and on Friday, Sept. 16 at 8:30 p.m. ET at the TIFF Bell Lightbox Cinema. 

Image courtesy of TIFF 

About The Author
Barry Walsh is editor and content director for realscreen, and has served as editor of the publication since 2009. With a career in entertainment media that spans two decades, prior to realscreen, he held the associate editor post for now defunct sister publication Boards, which focused on the advertising and commercial production industries. Before Boards, he served as editor of Canadian Music Network, a weekly music industry trade, and as music editor for HMV.com. As content director, he also oversees the development of content for the brand's market-leading events, the Realscreen Summit and Realscreen West, as well as new content initiatives.

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