What is the biggest ethical concern for documentary today? Yes, it's a BIG question. But it's worth trying to answer even if it's not easy to do so. Ethics are such a big deal in documentary discourse, probably the toughest topic to wrap our heads around, or come to many conclusions about. Panels and lectures on documentary ethics can be found at nearly every film festival and conference, and sometimes they occur at more random times and places, too. And none of these discussions ever finish with definite resolutions.
Last week I attended one of these irregular events, one hosted by The New York Film/Video Council and titled "Crossing the Line? A conversation on ethics and documentary film." P.O.V.'s Yance Ford moderated the talk, which featured filmmakers Albert Maysles ('Grey Gardens'), Tia Lessin ('Trouble the Water'), Stephanie Wang-Breal ('I Love You, Mommy') and Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman ('Catfish') talking about dilemmas involving underage subjects, hidden cameras and representations of character.
While it would be nice for you readers if I just transcribed that conversation, it wouldn't be fair to the NYFVC, so instead I opened a very vague ethics question of my own to filmmakers and writers to see what kind of discussion I could generate as a supplement to the panel, which I'll still try to quote where appropriate.
Let me begin by saying I'm somewhat surprised at how uniform many of the responses I received were, especially given how diverse the answers to my last Doc Talk question were. Basically the most important ethical concern for the majority of people can be boiled down to what a well known director, who requested anonymity, replied: "arguments are fine; propaganda is not."
This documentary filmmaker clarifies that the issue isn't about objectivity, "which is ridiculous and impossible," but rather "the need to be fair and to embrace the contradictions of everyday life" without distorting the truth.
Blogger Landon Palmer, of Film School Rejects, also recognizes a problem with the term "documentary objectivity," claiming, "I'm not sure what that's supposed to look like." As did many others polled on the topic, Palmer sees no reason for nonfiction films to be taken as works of journalism.
"I think documentarians should embody a perspective, own it, and argue it well," he says, citing 'Inside Job' as a film that succeeds at this. "Having a purpose, a thesis, and a perspective on a given issue does not make a documentary a deceptive work of propaganda. That said, especially if the work is political, documentaries should make compelling and thorough arguments, which means knowing the opposition to one's argument and treating it fairly with solid counter-argumentation and no misrepresentation."
Filmmaker Robert Greene agrees that documentary as journalism "is a flawed, limited thing," even while admitting that the legal controversy with 'Crude' is a serious issue and highlighting 'Restrepo' as a great example of the "new journalism" documentary. "I don't want my films called 'journalism,' he says. "There's too many decisions made for story and cinematic purposes in the best nonfiction films for them to be considered 'journalism.' And thank god for that."
Greene, whose excellent verite film about his half-sister, 'Kati with an I,' opens in NYC next Friday, concludes that above all "you have to tell the truth, even if it takes manipulation, editing and 'directing' to get you there."
How much manipulation is okay, though? With any doc, UGO film critic Jordan Hoffman wants to know "just how much story-tinkering did the documentarians have in capturing the material? There needs to be transparency."
This line of questioning is, of course, always directed towards one director in particular. "I find myself wishing that documentarians like Michael Moore would let the evidence speak for itself, without the self-conscious interjection of the author/filmmaker," professes writer Drew Morton, who contributes to Pajiba and The Playlist. "I realize that documentaries are narratives that are constructed by a person or a team but, like the most convincing arguments, evidence tends to hold a more persuasive place than style or rhetoric."
Moore has long been accused of intentionally manipulating facts for his rhetoric and storytelling, as have others, like recent Oscar-winner Josh Fox ('Gasland'). And some believe this is a very big problem. "A documentary filmmaker who knowingly presents false information as the truth hurts the entire genre," argues documentary filmmaker James Dirschberger ('Honest Man: The Life of R. Budd Dwyer'). "Because we're privileged to live in an age of abundant information, finding the information isn't the hard part; our burden is fact checking."
"I think misleading an audience will always be dangerous ground with documentary, agrees Frontline Club programmer and documentary blogger Charlotte Cook, of The Documentary Blog. "There will always be the debate about degrees of truth within the medium, and it's a great debate to have. [But] when audiences really begin to doubt documentary and not trust filmmakers, we lose a huge amount of what makes the impact of documentary so powerful."
Hoffman references 'Exit Through the Gift Shop' as a film that requires less transparency than most documentaries because that's its point, while publicist and blogger Brian Geldin (aka The Film Panel Notetaker) welcomes works like 'Exit' and 'Catfish' yet is concerned with the responsibility they may have to their audience.
"If I could borrow the line, 'imaginatively incorporates nonfiction strategies, content and/or modes of production' from this year's new Heterodox Award at the Cinema Eye Honors, then I would have to say that I am more than thrilled to see filmmakers mixing narrative and documentary to craft original new stories," he stresses. "However, I feel there may be ethical implications if one doesn't clearly state up front whether what they're showing is real or not real."
Sometimes determining what's real or not can be tricky for the filmmakers themselves, and not always in ways that fact checking will even help. Michael Barnett, who helmed the recent Slamdance hit 'Superheroes,' offers an example where he fortunately was able to not only realize a subject was being dishonest for the sake of notoriety but also to make an additional ethical decision as a result.
"We knew that a subject we thought could carry the film was lying to seem more exceptional somehow," he explains (not about the figure pictured above). "It was not my job to tell this subject how or what to show us. My job was simply to document his version of the truth, so that is what we did. After getting back to the edit, we knew that if we used the footage, it would make the film more entertaining and extraordinary, but it would not be truthful. So in the end, we decided not to use the footage."
Others see the greater issue being in how honest and upfront filmmakers are with their subjects, particularly in an age where people are more willing and anxious to be in front of a camera and can easily be exploited as a result. "In order to deliver his point of view the documentary filmmaker is often using people as protagonists," notes 'Plastic Planet' director Werner Boote. "As films might harm their protagonists or lead to collateral damage, the documentary filmmaker needs to measure those effects with the benefit the film will generate for the public. He needs to carefully choose who he is using and for which purpose and which damage might occur to them."
Similar to the points about documentaries needing to maintain truth as a priority in nonfiction storytelling, filmmakers should also maintain respect for their subjects' true identity even when these people are being molded to a narrative. "I recognize that some docs hinge on getting access to antagonists," says Basil Tsiokos, a programming associate for the Sundance Film Festival's documentary feature sections (also a writer at indieWIRE and his blog What (Not) to Doc), "so some deception might be part of gaining that access. It's a bit tricky, but as a general rule documentary filmmakers should endeavor to neither take advantage of nor belittle their subjects, without whom they wouldn't have much of a film."
Filmmaker Ryan Ferguson adds that being upfront with subjects regarding intent and adhering to the idea of informed consent is a "really dicey issue." He brings up 'Catfish' as a doc that outraged him for this very reason, yet acknowledges how tough it must have been for the guys in that situation.
"From the filmmaker's perspective, that conversation can be difficult because you don't want to scare your participant away," he says, "but you also need to make them aware of the possible ramifications of their decision to go in front of the camera. They need to understand that you will be doing your best to accurately represent what they said and did, and that there's a difference between 'accurate representation' and objective truth. I feel pretty lucky that I haven't told a story with a bad guy in it yet. I haven't had to ask anyone to participate that I also know is going to be portrayed in unflattering light in my film. That would be [another] difficult conversation to have."
At the NYFVC panel, Schulman confronted the critics who see 'Catfish' as a kind of freak show. "You can't really concern yourself with whether or not everyone's going to believe [your subject] is being treated fairly," he argued. "You just have to trust your own moral instinct. Editing a documentary, you can make them seem like any type of person you want; they can be evil, altruistic, absolutely anything. So you just trust that you present a fair portrait of them. Even with my own character, there were probably more negative moments of myself than positive because it made sense for the story. It runs the gamut how people respond to [Angela] and it always seems a projection of their own personal issues. It's different for every viewer, so having thought about all that, she would have been the flattest character ever created."
Maysles, who went so far as to quote reviews of 'Grey Gardens' and unpublished rebuttals from the Beales, offered this insight on the issue: "Most important is the possibility, probability and hope that behind the eye of the cameraman is a poet, somebody who's sensitive to the feelings of the people being filmed. The kind of person who, immediately looking at them for the first time, seeing through their eyes, you can say, 'I trust that person.'"
Then there is the matter of how close filmmakers get to their subjects. 'Enemies of the People' director Rob Lemkin claims, "due to the eternal presence of your film or material on the internet, the biggest problem is the unending relationship between filmmaker and subject (with its associated responsibilities)."
The hard part about the relationship concern is that while some objective filmmakers see it best to sever ties with subjects after filming, it's not an easy break if you've spent the proper amount of time getting close enough to people to gain the appropriate amount of trust. This applies most to documentaries about children, such as the in-production film 'The Anderson Monarchs,' about an inner-city girls' soccer team.
"When working with minors its important that their parents and guardians are very involved from the start of the project, even at the research stages," says that film's director, Eugene Martin. "Children are constantly being exploited for commercial purposes and so many parents are very wary of filmmakers. As a parent of three children, I am right there with them! I would have to think long and hard about letting people film my children. It's hard to know if they have good intentions, unless the maker happens to be a major artist with a great track record. I find the more transparent and open a dialogue you can establish the better the filmmaking outcomes as well."
What's the procedure for kids where the consenting power is hard to define? This is something that came up during the NYFVC panel, as Wang-Breal has been struggling with ethical concerns while documenting adoption stories, like that of her last film, Wo Ai Ni Mommy ('I Love You, Mommy') and her next. "I'm working on a new film about foster care," she told the crowd," and I'm again faced with the dilemma of how I portray a child, because some of these kids are ages 2 to 4. I'm trying new styles to see if I can have a child present physically before their case is resolved."
In the case of the young subject of 'I Love You, Mommy,' Wang-Breal addressed the post-filming relationship issue raised by Lemkin. "I filmed Faith at this extremely transformational period of her life, and I'm still engaged with her. And I hope that just being involved with her life until whatever age that I can help her understand what we went through, what we did, and [later] discuss it."
Martin tells me that "staying true to oneself" is the primary ethic to adhere to, while also producing emotionally uplifting stories, since reality TV is there to bring us down. Screen Rant's Kofi Outlaw might disagree with him, as he believes "being objective and not slanting or manipulating the documentary in order to cater to the film market" is key.
Also chiming in from Screen Rant, Vic Holtreman likewise brings it back to objectivity and "true journalistic intent," contrary to the points made elsewhere. "Seems to me that today documentaries all start out with some definite agenda and set out to bolster that view, whatever it may be," he complains. Instead filmmakers need "to be as neutral as possible and allow viewers to reach their own conclusions."
Still, the great ethical concern is back to what's communicated to the audience, whether subjectively or objectively, and not in a pandering fashion. "The entire act of making a film, documentary or otherwise, is about taking an ethical stand in the world," according to filmmaker Audrey Ewell ('Until the Light Takes Us'), who asks the following question of herself when making a documentary: "Am I, and the ideas I amplify with film, contributing to people's ability to think critically, to build lives around a more complex understanding of the hidden mechanisms that shape our world?
Critical thinking can be stimulated with films that aren't exactly transparent, however, and in fact unbelievable documentaries are obviously the most misleading, warranting additional exercising of the mind in ways that are unnecessary and unfair. Pajiba's Dustin Rowles urges the importance for full disclosure of who is behind your film.
"As with any film with an agenda," he says, "it's important to know who is pushing it (and adjust our cynicism accordingly). The doc 'What the Bleep Do We Know?' is actually a good example. I don't think it was widely known until after it had been released that a film about 'quantum physics and consciousness' was funded and directed by people associated with Ramtha's School of Enlightenment. And those people are f*%ing crazy. (Full disclosure: My father taught at Ramtha's School of Enlightenment, and he was f*%king crazy.)"
Now it's your turn to offer an answer and/or continue the discussion. What do you think is the most important ethical concern for documentary today?