Documentary director Errol Morris gets personal with The B-Side

Morris profiles a giant-Polaroid portrait photographer and friend, Elsa Dorfman.


Elsa Dorfman holding one of her Polaroids

Errol Morris has made all kinds of documentaries about all kinds of subjects. Some have even been biographies, which is pretty much exactly how I’d describe The B-Side: Elsa Dorfman’s Portrait Photography. Yet Morris’s latest film is a bit of a departure for him, not only because it doesn’t use his trademark Interrotron technology to frame the interviews, but because Elsa Dorfman is a friend of his.

“It certainly does differ because I’ve known Elsa for 25 years,” says Morris. “Elsa and Harvey, her husband, are close friends of our family — I might even say adored friends of our family. I had thought of making this kind of movie — a portrait of Elsa — for years. I just hadn’t gotten around to doing it. I don’t know how different it actually is. In order for me to make a film about anybody, I have to like them on some level… although that was certainly challenged by Donald Rumsfeld. I said to Elsa, ‘I don’t know why I like you so much — you’re not even a war criminal!’. I adore Elsa, but that doesn’t mean I can’t respectfully interview her. I don’t think it’s so different. Maybe I’m delusional here — I certainly wouldn’t rule out that possibility.”

Filmmaker Errol Morris.
Filmmaker Errol Morris.

Dorfman’s most unusual and idiosyncratic work tool is a Polaroid 20 x 24 camera (an extremely rare piece of technology of which there are only five in the entire world), which takes enormous Polaroids that Dorfman chiefly uses to take portraits. There are portraits of musicians like Jonathan Richman, portraits of her old Beat poet friends like Allen Ginsberg but also regular portraits of regular people. The film’s tone is chummy and casual; Morris interacts constantly with Dorfman as she sifts through her archives, particularly the B-sides — the takes that the subjects opted not to go with, for whatever reason.

“Certainly Elsa gave us access to her archives in a way that exhibited enormous trust,” he continues. “I was fortunate in that regard. All of this material that my editors and my researchers found in her house made it that much better as a movie. (…) There’s a certain number of fortuitous acts that came simply from uncovering more and more material, like finding the tape of Ginsberg’s last phone message, which Elsa hadn’t heard since Ginsberg’s death. I can’t say we would’ve had that kind of access if we hadn’t been friends and if she hadn’t trusted me on some level. For that, I’m deeply grateful.”

There’s also a question of format. When making a film about images, you have to be able to showcase those images as best you can. Dorfman’s Polaroid portraits are an unusual size, making them difficult to scan, and laid out in the opposite aspect ratio from the film screen. I mention speaking to photographer Sebastiao Salgado some years back when Wim Wenders made a film about him. Salgado had said that seeing the pictures projected on the big screen was awe-inspiring to him — an effect that is way more difficult to replicate with the peculiarities of the 20 x 24 format.

“There’s always a problem of how you’re going to display photographs in a film about photography or about a photographer,” Morris explains. “Wenders used that strange technique — effectively — of changing focus, displaying the photograph on a glass surface and then focusing between Salgado and the image. I did something very different. I got rid of my normal interviewing device, the Interrotron, and had several cameras, one of which I myself operated. I was the operator, sitting right across from Elsa and talking to her while filming her at the same time. I discovered, really, how to film her photographs while I was making the film. Very early on, she’d pull film out of a file and hold it up in front of the camera. We had a problem here. The film is shot in what basically amounts to the Cinemascope format — it’s 2.4 times as wide as it is high, so it’s a band-aid shape, whereas her photographs are vertical. How do you do that? How do you actually photograph something like that?

“We came up with a variety of solutions, one of which is having Elsa hold up the photographs in front of her. I didn’t orchestrate it, she just started doing it and I thought, not only do I like it, but it’s really working! She kind of becomes one with the photograph — you see her hands and the top of her head… Coming up with various solutions of how you depict the various photographs on film, there’s something much more powerful than just the images themselves. Wenders was concerned with seeing the images as images; I’m actually more concerned with Elsa’s relationship to the images.

“For me, the most powerful moments in the film are when she’s holding up pictures of her parents, pictures of herself as a much younger person, and telling us about their death. There’s something really powerful about seeing Elsa look at her own work and talk about it. There are all these reverberations and cross-references that I hope are captured in the film. It becomes ultimately a film about loss — I like to think it’s kind of an elegiac film about how we lose our art, we lose the things we love, and yet something remains. That process of trying to capture something about the world that is so evanescent and so fleeting. I like this film! I like the fact that I’ve been able to tell a story about someone that I really love and really care about and bring her to a wider audience.” ■

The B-Side opens at Cinéma du Parc (3575 Parc) on Friday, July 7