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One of the true highlights of Independent Film Festival Boston was Saturday’s screening of Errol Morris’ new documentary The B-Side: The Portrait Photography of Elsa Dorfman, with both the filmmaker and subject in attendance. Well, it would have been anyway, just to see the Cambridge resident and master filmmaker talk about his work and shoot the shit with the audience afterward, but this is a special little documentary about a photographer at the end of her career. It shouldn’t be a surprise that the movie is this good, but it makes one hell of an impact. For many, The B-Side will be considered minor Morris, but it’s still a new Errol Morris film, which makes it almost automatically more interesting than the entire outputs of documentary filmmakers.
Portrait photographer (and Cambridge resident) Elsa Dorfman has had one hell of a fascinating life. She came to photography later in life than most, after working at a famous Beat publisher and forming friendships with the likes of Allen Ginsberg and other poets, and sold many of her photographs from a shopping cart in Harvard Square throughout the ’70s and ’80s while doing a variety of other work. Once Polaroid moved their offices to Cambridge, she was exposed to the 20×24 instant camera, which provided large-size portraits made within a matter of minutes, and she devoted herself to the format. She photographed her family, her friends (a nude portrait of Ginsberg is particularly funny and interesting), and her work is as much a document of the moment as it is a section in the long chain of a lifetime. Basically, Dorfman guides Morris through her archives, showing the work she’s made over the years.
Dorfman is a great subject for Morris — their styles (in speech and aesthetic) complement each other well — and the two share similar worldviews. Dorfman has beautifully composed views on the passing of time and of life itself, and she’s tremendously moving and astute in her observations. Hell, it was incredibly difficult not to cry when she looks at portraits of her parents and hones in on the fact that they looked so young to her in the pictures, her having become older than they ever were. These are the insight that a life captured on film can bring, and it’s Morris doesn’t editorialize on top of them. Occasionally he’ll prop up to steer the conversation in a particular way, but for the most part, he stays in the background, letting his subject be the driving force behind the film’s ebb and flow.
Above all else, Morris’s respect for his subject and what she’s done with her art comes across in every single frame of The B-Side. There’s a true tenderness here, which will undoubtedly surprise those who know him only as the incisive agitator who captured the dark hearts of men like Robert McNamara and Donald Rumsfeld directly with his use of the interrotron, and this sweetness can occasionally catch you off guard. He doesn’t use the interrotron here, as it’d ruin so much of the charm of going through Dorfman’s archives if she were just staring at the camera and talking directly at you, and it also helps to put in perspective the physical size of her work, which can become abstract when blown up and shown on the big screen.
Again, those expecting something masterfully compelling on the same scale as, say, his modern masterpiece Tabloid, will undoubtedly be disappointed here. It’s not the kind of Morris that drives the critics wild, and you’ll see things like “dramatically inert” or “boring” thrown around when this movie finally hits theaters. However, for those willing to have the patience and the desire to learn more about both photography and some serious life lessons along the way, The B-Side: the Portrait Photography of Elsa Dorfman is a wonderful little film with a great deal to offer.
The B-Side hits theaters on June 30.
Independent Film Festival Boston runs from April 26 to May 3. Follow Nick Johnston on Twitter @onlysaysficus and @Vanyaland617 for updates throughout the fest.