Thursday, October 8, 2009


Independent documentary filmmakers I know are often hyper-aware of the responsibility they bear towards their subjects (who may, at great emotional expense, be sharing their foibles, failings, and feelings) and their audiences (who rely on the filmmaker to be truthful). But there are a million little choices that go into making a documentary film -- who to interview or whom to ignore, how far you push them in your questioning, whether you pay them, your lighting and camera angle, which archival sources to use, who gets final say over the film, what's left on the cutting room floor, and every single edit point in the entire film. Naturally, there are ethical questions in each of these choices. An interesting new study by Patricia Aufderheide, Peter Jaszi and Mridu Chandrea for the Center for Social Media looks at "Honest Truths: Documentary Filmmakers on Ethical Challenges in Their Work." 

Here are a few intriguing (but not necessarily representative) bits. 

One filmmaker "asked a subject to redo an interview in order to get a more emotionally rich version of a painful moment when he had been abused by police in prison. The second time, 'he was crying, I was crying, we were all crying. It was so powerful. After I wrapped, I felt like a real shit for the rest of the day, felt like I manipulated him for my personal gain. It is a powerful moment in the film but I felt bad to push him to that point when he broke down." 

Another filmmaker says, "If the tables were turned ... I would never allow them to make a film about my tragedy. I am keenly aware of the hypocrisy of asking someone for access that I myself would probably not grant." And another: "They let you be there as their life unfolds, and  that carries with it a responsibility to try to anticipate how the audience will see them, and protect them where necessary." 

Still another filmmaker "recalled having to decide between two photographs to illustrate the point that [former Louisiana governor] Huey Long was often surrounded by bodyguards. One featured his typical bodyguards, in street clothes. Another featured uniformed guards -- a one time, exceptional moment. After discussion with his team and with professional historian, he decided for the atypical shot, because it communicated his point (that Long used bodyguards) more rapidly. "I sacrificed a little bit of accuracy. But did I? The reason we still talk about [this] is because it was a perfect ethical conundrum. It spoke to the possibilities as well. It made the film better. It did not compromise an ultimate truth." 

The report also describes a filmmaker who was shooting a wildlife film, trying to capture a scene of one animal hunting another. "We tried to shoot a few [scenes of the predator capturing its prey], and missed both of them. Unbeknownst to me, the [animal wrangler] broker the next rabbit's leg, so it couldn't run. So we got one [shot of the successful hunt]. On the next take, they then asked, 'Should we break its leg again?' ... I made the decision, let them break it. I regret it. It eats me up every day." Apparently, this filmmaker felt bad about sacrificing the rabbit, but it seems to be the bigger conundrum is how what happens gets manipulated, edited or staged to tell a story. 


  1. Paul,

    Given TWI's interests in decision making, I find this a really intriguing topic. Based on the excerpts I'll check out the report so thanks for the heads up. I was particularly struck by the filmmaker who talked about his double standard regarding what he asks of others, indeed what his work rests upon, and what he's willing to do. The gap in terms of the standards we hold for others and ourselves is a common story found in a wide range of contexts -- including philanthropy.

    John Esterle

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