Pick the worse situation: a documentary filmmaker keeps the camera rolling as a teenage girl is beaten by her father; a documentary filmmaker intervenes in the above situation, befriends the girl, pays her a cut of the film's profits and ultimately helps her get a job or into college. There are many other possibilities found in the spectrum of doc ethics that fall between these two extremes, but I think every non-fiction film fan should have a basic preference for one or the other. Either you're someone who thinks docs should be primarily objective and not interfere at any point (save for life-threatening violence) or you're someone who thinks documentarians should be life savers whenever possible.
I got in a debate recently with someone who thinks the former situation (seen in 'Last Train Home') is totally unethical. She thinks most people agree with her on that as well as her belief that documentary filmmakers should become more involved with their subjects and provide for their welfare if necessary and doable. Maybe you are one of those people who think this is true. I've often written about my dislike for 'Born Into Brothels,' with its onscreen fundraising that seems more self-serving than selfless charity, and I just as much hate the mere charity aspect of the film. Filmmakers can reveal and even advocate, but they shouldn't attempt to do the rescuing themselves.
Should documentary subjects at least be paid for their service to the films? This I'm still unsure about, or at least I have trouble discerning for whom and when is compensation appropriate. The kids in 'Hoop Dreams' are for all purposes the stars of that film, so it might make sense for them to get a percentage of the profits (it's worth recognizing that very few docs make a lot of money, though that film was a great financial success). The Beales of 'Grey Gardens' (and 'The Beales of Grey Gardens') probably should have received the same, at least because they were promised such (though in this case there was no profit), and were entitled at least to their earned $5000 each on account of the way the film employs or exploits them (depending on your view).
The issue of involvement with 'Grey Gardens' also concerns the idea of filmmakers getting too close simply by being with the subjects nearly or literally 24/7. Many times it helps the filmmaker, particularly those of the direct cinema variety, to earn the trust of the subjects, and to them this can veer quite close to seeming like the filmmaker wants to be friends. Little Edie Beale certainly thought the Maysles brothers were her friends; she may have even thought David was something more (she probably just had an unrequited crush on him, though she was known for having romantic delusions and possibly thought there was more there).
But unless you're like Michael Apted (the 'Up' series) or expect to make a sequel -- as in a physical return to the subjects, like the 'Paradise Lost' follow-ups, not a release of newly edited outtakes a la 'The Beales of Grey Gardens' and '65 Revisited' -- you ought to be able to easily leave the subject at the end of a shoot with little attachment. Otherwise you could end up like Nick Broomfield suffering both a loss and a question of ethics in and with 'Aileen: Life and Death of a Serial Killer.' During an earlier film, 'Aileen Wuornos: The Selling of a Serial Killer,' he became friendly with the subject, in his usual intimate journalistic way, and it seems in the second film that she believed their bond to be tighter than he did.
Questions related to closeness of involvement can also apply to those films in which the filmmaker already has a relationship to the subjects prior to shooting. This is typical of someone documenting his family, like Doug Block (whose latest, 'The Kids Grow Up,' opens this Friday), or someone documenting a tragedy involving a friend ('Dear Zachary'), but even then there are good examples with a surprising amount of objectivity in the matter (see recent family docs 'October Country' and 'Monica & David,' as well as much of Ross McElwee's personal yet otherwise socially detached works).
I've certainly seen films in which involvement, or at least a greater level of closeness, is in fact key to their success. Many times they happen to be shot by women, who appear to earn trust and comfort with female subjects better than men. Barbara Kopple's access to the feminine and maternal angle of the Dixie Chicks doc 'Shut Up & Sing,' for example. A Chinese film titled 'Out of Phoenix Bridge,' about female migrant workers all living tightly packed together, also works in this way. The personal proximity shows us things a more objective filmmaker couldn't. But for Kopple, her subjects only needed help telling their story, which the film did. As for very personalized indie doc makers in China, they don't really have the power to be their subject's saviors, unless vicariously through a viewer, and that's only if the film makes the festival rounds and is watched by the guilty-feeling rich.
Even better than those check-writing festivalgoers, though, are the art collectors. As seen in 'Brothels,' art involving those in need of saving can be a means of rescue, and that brings us to this week's featured new release:
Recommended In Theaters: 'Waste Land'
After seeing this latest doc from Lucy Walker (her 'Countdown to Zero' was also in theaters this year), I tweeted that it was what 'Born Into Brothels' should have been. A documentary that focuses on another subject trying to make a difference for select poor people of the Third World rather than trying to be that involved rescuer itself. In this case that subject is artist Vik Muniz, who returns to his native land of Brazil to employ some slum-dwelling recycling workers in an art project, through which they'll take all the eventual proceeds. But then I learned that the project was partly Walker's conception and the whole thing was considered a collaboration. So it's actually not that much different from the earlier doc I hate so much.
Still, I can't help but want people to see it, regardless. I also sometimes recommend 'Brothels' so people know what I'm talking about. But this is a bit different. For one, I can't deny my initial experience, being mesmerized by the Moby-scored slow motion sequences of people picking through garbage at the world's largest landfill (Rio's Jardin Gramacho). It's also captivating to watch Muniz's process, fascinating to see and contemplate how much one's trash reveals social status and sadly intriguing to hear about the dump often being used for disposing of bodies, whether of gangsters from the favelas or unwanted babies.
Most importantly, there is some discussion in the film, at least a little bit, concerning certain ethics of involvement and interference with subjects through art (one question: is it bad for a poor person to be exposed to and brought into the good life for a short time and then be put back into poverty?) -- and that obviously carries over to more seemingly journalistic works like this. Interestingly enough, in the 'Waste Land' press notes, Walker offers her stance on the matter, directly as it concerns her film but it generally speaks to the topic at hand, too:
"Should documentary filmmakers interfere with their subjects' lives? But how could they not? I don't believe in objectivity. I observe the observer's paradox every moment I'm filming. Your presence is changing everything; there's no mistaking it. And you have a responsibility."
What that responsibility is isn't stated, nor is how much. Some would say there's also a responsibility to stop documenting Brazil as nothing but poverty porn, showing us in America only favelas and now the world of the catadores (recycling pickers), exploiting them and making Brazil look more dangerous to tourists than it might deserve. Also, no film, let alone a long-existing charity or human rights organization can save all the people who need saving. Is giving something special to a few catadores worth recognizing how many are not helped or involved with? These are things worth discussing once you've seen the film, which the majority of you are likely to enjoy given its multiple audience award wins at film fests. Like 'Brothels' it'll probably even end up winning the Academy Award.
'Waste Land' opens in NYC this Friday, October 29, and in LA November 5. Other major cities will follow through December.