Written by GOOD DOCS intern Samantha Chambers
It always seems easy to designate right and wrong until you’re the one behind the camera.
When I entered my GOOD DOCS internship this summer, I did it less as a person who was interested in documentary, and more so as someone who was interested in the company’s human rights focus. I had just finished my first year at Brown, where I had decided to concentrate in Sociology and American Studies, focusing on aspects of systemic inequality. My classes and my world seemed to center the big issues faced by society – and our failures to address them; as such, delving into the human rights field seemed like a natural progression. It didn’t occur to me, however, just how much working with a documentary distributor would challenge and reaffirm my beliefs on justice.
The more films that I watched and researched as a member of the GOOD DOCS team, the more the two areas of interest in documentary and in human rights intertwined. Yet through my months working with the company, I found myself circling back to the same central questions: What ethical responsibilities do documentary filmmakers have to their subjects, to their audiences, and to themselves? How must they draw the line between advocating for human rights and creating a fair, profitable product – and where does that line exist?
In order to touch upon these questions, and with the support of GOOD DOCS founder and executive director Sarah Feinbloom, I had set out to speak with several documentary filmmakers. After sending out a series of email inquiries, I heard back from numerous members of the doc community – all from various walks of life and levels of experience, but all with a focus on human rights filmmaking. This project, which had been influenced by a discussion in my Intro to Cultural Anthropology class, quickly evolved into something much bigger than what I had originally anticipated. Within weeks, I had spent hours speaking with professors, award-winning producers, comedians, and more – all centered around the central question of documentaries and ethics.
Through Zoom calls and email correspondence, I had found out so much more about the world of and the minds behind human rights documentaries. And while there was no one definitive answer, these conversations not only highlighted several intuitive points about ethics in documentary filmmaking, but also raised several pertinent questions to continue this ongoing discussion. As a result, I have put together a series of Q&As from several different documentary filmmakers, which will span over a number of blog posts: first, from a couple of rising producers; next, to a series of professors in the doc world; and finally, from GOOD DOCS filmmaker Ben-Alex Dupris. While I was not able to transcribe every detail of our interviews, their insight has been invaluable in shaping both the contents of this series as well as my own thoughts on human rights ethics.
ANDREA WALKER-WILLIAMSON, JACOB REED
In wanting to learn more about the diverse perspectives that documentarians had on ethics, I thought it interesting to reach out to a couple of rising filmmakers and producers. Not only would they offer an outside perspective to these issues, but also provide a fresh lens. For this part of the series I spoke to Andrea Walker-Williamson and Jacob Reed. While these filmmakers are not currently involved with GOOD DOCS, their work centers around similar issues of human rights and human stories. Both have quickly gained recognition for their filmmaking and production, and both created an immersive dialogue about what ethical documentary production means through my individual discussions with them.
ANDREA WALKER-WILLIAMSON – Bias, Access, and Representation
The first person with whom I spoke was Andrea Walker-Williamson, an award-winning director and producer. As the founder of Create Noise and a member of several documentary organizations, such as the International Documentary Association, Andrea’s current project We Are America focuses on the untold stories of African American descendants of the nation’s Founding Fathers. An excerpt from our interview is as follows:
Q: With your film, We Are America, how do you draw a balance between wanting your work to represent people and their stories, but also not wanting it to be exploitative?
A: I think I looked at it like it was a responsibility to just tell the truth and be honest, no matter how biased one side of the story is. When they give it to me, it’s not me telling the story of my own words, it’s me allowing them to tell their own stories and share and give them the space. And some of these stories are really, really big … I don’t want my opinion to bias or soften the validity of what we’re doing because historically it started becoming a heavy work when you hear the personal stories and you hear how these people have been split apart, and you don’t want to lose that.
Q: As a Black filmmaker yourself and in a space where filmmaking and access has been largely white-dominated, how do you think you find your place? What do you wish to see?
A: What I noticed was that I started to see more non-Black people telling our stories, especially some great pieces. And then I started to look at some of the organizations that attach themselves on to these storytellers, and I realized some huge companies were all behind these projects, and you didn't see that much support surrounding these other projects that were just as heavy and just as good. And so that was one of the reasons why I'd say I didn't want to wait for somebody else to share the stories that really, really shook the tree for me.
As I’ve been navigating these spaces, it opened my mind up – I think what’s always been our problem is access. How do you get started with this? How do you get involved? How do you gain more access and knowledge to these hidden stories and issues? … You sat with these people, you gained knowledge, you're openly telling their story. So it's time for us to listen.
To find out more about Andrea Walker-Williamson, you can find her here.
JACOB REED – Entertainment, Identity, and Responsibility
An award-winning director and writer, Jacob Reed has recently shifted from theater and comedy into the documentary world. Jacob’s short film Full Picture, which premiered at the Slamdance Festival, is a documentary focused on a woman living with disability in the COVID era. An excerpt from our interview is as follows:
Q: As somebody who worked in media before, but in a very different landscape, I want to see how some ethical issues and the ways that they're approached have been translated or contrasted from one another.
A: I was a director on about 100 episodes of Jimmy Kimmel Live for almost a year before the pandemic. It's a late night sketch show, but their bread and butter is these videos where a writer off camera will interview someone on the street. … There were a couple times where something was really funny. But I had this gut feeling of like, we can't do that to that person.
And so that's something that I had never really encountered in any other comedic filmmaking that I was doing. So, you have directors and filmmakers, and most of the time in the doc world we end up having close to total control over our projects and over what we're saying. Right. And so with that, I think there comes a certain amount of responsibility that it is easy to not even be aware that you have.
Q: To build off – do you think that filmmakers have any sort of responsibility to the subjects of their films?
A: I do. Absolutely. For example, my short film Full Picture, is about my friend Santina’s journey at the beginning of the pandemic as a person who uses a wheelchair. And so, you know, I'm an able-bodied, white, hetero, cisgender, man … And so, even though I think everybody has a responsibility to honestly portray and be faithful to their subject, I think it's especially critical for people like me because I have more societal and institutional biases that I am likely to be unaware of than someone who's not, you know, straight or not white or not male or not, et cetera.
Q: And with documentaries that focus on human subjects, at the end of the day, how do you draw the line between exploitation and information and entertainment?
A: I honestly don't know that you ever can. 100% I feel like there's something about film, inherently, that's exploitative. Unless someone is directing, producing, writing a documentary about themselves – but even then, there's the power structure of the distribution or where the money is coming from, or whatever.
I think that the standard in the [corporate media] industry is not to take a step back and be like, “should I be the person who's doing this?”. At this moment, what is right or wrong is kind of dictated by what is profitable or what you can get away with. We need to hold people and ourselves to a higher standard of this very hard to dictate gut feeling, and ask ourselves what we’re contributing, if it’s new, and if we're the right person to be doing that.
PROFESSORS OF FILM
YORUBA RICHEN, DEB TOLCHINSKY, JOHN DENTINO
In my pursuit to find out more about documentary ethics, I opted to reach out to several professors involved in the film world, interested in how the overlap between their fields of work would shape their thoughts. As a current university undergrad, and as an intern working for an educational film distributor, I was further inspired to speak with documentary-affiliated educators for this project. For this part of the series I spoke to Professors Yoruba Richen, Deb Tolchinsky, and John Dentino. While these individuals are outside of GOOD DOCS, their highly accomplished work as educators, filmmakers, and directors offered invaluable insight.
YORUBA RICHEN – Engagement, Compensation, and Evolution
With nearly twenty-five years in the filmmaking industry, Professor Yoruba Richen is the director of the documentary program at the Craig Newmark Graduate School of Journalism for CUNY. Professor Richen has recently worked on several civil rights films – including Tribeca-featured film The Rebellious Life of Mrs. Rosa Parks, as well as two ongoing projects focused on reparations and on the 1898 Wilmington Massacre. An excerpt from our interview is as follows:
Q: As someone who works on such a diverse array of films, and whose films are reaching a lot of people through streaming and festivals, how do you balance the line between audience entertainment and storytelling?
A: For social justice films, which is what I’m currently working on and a lot of what I do in general, when I think in terms of the audience, I don't think of it necessarily in terms of ethics. Instead I think of it as, “what am I trying to say to my audience, and how do I want them to engage with the material?”. The hope is that the films appeal to a wide array of people, not necessarily just to people who may agree with me, so it’s really about having a healthy respect for the audience. You do have to entertain – it’s a movie at the end of the day – so we look in our toolbox to see how to make the film engaging, emotional, and interesting for the audience. With these historical films you also need to look for relevance and how people today are going to connect with them.
Q: And when you talk about pulling out emotions or relevance, how do you curate those types of sensations without making it exploitative or taking advantage of the subjects?
A: I think it’s about creating a relationship with the participants in the film. And it’s creating a relationship that’s based on trust – they're trusting you with a story that’s based on their continuous consent to be in a film.
I actually just had a very interesting process with our Wilmington film, where we had a day-long workshop with the descendants of the massacre. We really worked to build trust in the descendants and ask them what they want to see from the film – what were their concerns, what are their concerns, what had their past experiences with media been – we broke bread and had a meal with them. We’re now doing follow-ups and showing a clip that we might use in a fundraising reel, which all is a part of trying to keep the relationship continuous and that they feel free to express their thoughts. That doesn’t necessarily mean that we give them a final cut … but we note what they feel and how we can continue to involve them in things like education and outreach.
Q: Talking about continued relationships, I was wondering how compensation plays a role in films like these?
A: It’s a very tricky issue. The Wilmington film is for PBS, and they have very clear rules that you cannot compensate your participants. That doesn’t mean that there aren’t other ways to ‘compensate’ them for their time – we can bring them into outreach and to screenings, and if they give us archival footage we can pay for that; but to pay for interviews is something that you can’t do, at least for this company. Now, there are ongoing discussions around that, and how we can fairly compensate our participants for participation, and I think that’s a conversation that’s very needed.
Q: In your years working in documentaries, how have you seen the dialogue about ethics change and stay the same?
A: I can really only speak from my own experience, but as the industry has grown, I’ve seen this conversation enter the forefront, especially in the past six or seven years. There have been some really interesting interventions, like the workshop in Wilmington or the Documentary Accountability Working Group.
The thing about documentary that’s hard is that there’s no sort of official standards. It's a little bit of a wild west even still, in terms of how, you know, the different ethics that folks abide by. People kind of chart their own path, generally speaking, which is why something like the Documentary Accountability Working Group is really important, because it gives you some kind of guide to look at – they've interviewed filmmakers and as participants and come up with some kind of formal guideposts. So I think that's a really positive and necessary thing. And I’ll just emphasize it doesn't mean giving over your cut or having other people have final say in your films. But it's really important to think about these things as so many of us go into other communities that are not our own for our films, and we need to keep those questions in our mind.
To find out more about Yoruba Richen, you can find her faculty profile here.
DEB TOLCHINSKY – Transparency, Representation, and Complexity
A filmmaker and an associate professor at Northwestern University, Professor Deb Tolchinsky is the founding director of Northwestern’s MFA in the Documentary Media program. Professor Tolchinsky is currently working on a four-part episodic series True Memories and Other Falsehoods which looks at how memory and belief can become contaminated during criminal Investigations, in connection with her short titled Contaminated Memories. An excerpt from our interview conducted via email correspondence is as follows:
Q: What do you think are the most pertinent ethical issues that face documentary filmmakers today?
A: There are so many! Although this is in no way an exhaustive list, some of the ethical issues that come to mind are confirmation bias, psychological harm, physical or economic harm, extractive practices, and subversion of filmmaker intent.
Q: How, if at all, have you seen these change and evolve over your career?
A: When I went to film school, it was considered gold if someone cried on camera. Now many of us are thinking about our impact on our participants, including how not to retraumatize people. Many of us ask ourselves and the people we film, are we going too far? Are we crossing into territory that is not our place to be in? Is what we’re doing beneficial, healing, or damaging? When is it appropriate to put down the camera and turn off the sound?
Historically, filmmakers frequently made documentaries with no relationship to the communities they depicted. Often, they projected their own biases unchecked onto those they filmed. The filmmakers were in a position of power, usually white and privileged, while the communities they depicted were not. I believe documentarians are more conscious of confirmation bias and whose story is being told to whom, by whom, and why? Filmmakers, distributors, and audiences now realize the need for broader representation. There is an awareness that more films must be made by people who have a stake in the communities they depict. Documentarians are also more interested in collaborating with their participants.
Q: Especially in human rights documentaries, where do we draw the line with filmmaking and the potential exploitation of people, topics, or subjects?
A: The line isn’t always clear. For example, asking people to retell painful stories can be exploitative, but alternatively, it can sometimes be meaningful, healing, and validating. In my work, I feature two men who have been wrongfully convicted, one of whom spent 20 years in prison. Talking about their experiences brings up painful memories. It is difficult. Yet, being featured in a documentary enables them to have their truth heard and publicly witnessed. Both men have said they want their stories told so that what happened to them might not happen to someone else. They want their experiences used for reform-- to change laws and systematic injustice.
I believe filmmakers must be transparent about what they are doing and why. The people featured in documentaries should give informed consent. Nevertheless, film subjects don’t usually know how their image or story will be used or how their lives or those they love might be affected. And making a documentary can take years, especially since the fundraising process can be challenging (I’m six years in on my current project). The circumstances of a film participant’s life can be radically different from the start of production until distribution. And for filmmakers, the process evolves as they gather footage and political climates shift. In other words, filmmakers rarely foresee the final film, even when transparent.
Questions at the forefront include: is the participant or community experiencing healing or agency, or am I primarily creating further trauma? Am I respectfully involving my film participants in the creation process? Ultimately, documentary filmmaking is complex and entails the potential for many ethical missteps. I constantly ask myself, what am I doing, why, and to what end? I try to be vigilantly self-reflective. Nevertheless, like child rearing, I’m sure I’ll make mistakes. Hopefully, the good outweighs them.
JOHN DENTINO – Bias, Anarcho-Personalism, and Support
Based in California, Professor John Dentino is an adjunct professor for the Los Angeles Community College District as well as a documentary producer and director. Currently, Professor Dentino is producing a hybrid documentary focused on Italian immigrant anarchists – inspired by his own grandfather’s life. An excerpt from our interview is as follows:
Q: With a film like yours that has a strong personal connection, and with documentary films in general, how do you think bias plays a role?
A: Bias plays a great role and always does. And you either try to eliminate your own bias, which is very difficult, or you admit to it and you are completely transparent about it. Right now, the whole International Documentary Association website is involved with this question. On one hand, we have the political and social impulse to eliminate bias, especially there’s a very big push towards diversity, equity and inclusion. On the other hand, there’s an artistic angle – if a documentary is without any bias, is it as interesting as one that has bias? What you want to take out is toxic or exploitative bias, but not necessarily cultural or artistic bias as long as it’s transparent. … We’re in a transition period right now where we’re trying to eliminate bias, but if you say you’re unbiased but yet you still are, that’s almost worse.
Q: Beyond dealing with bias, what other responsibilities do you think that filmmakers have to their subjects?
A: Well, they have a responsibility to their subjects not to make their lives worse. A lot of the issues that we deal with as filmmakers, we’re exploring a problem. You have documentaries that show a problem and suggest a solution. And then you have activist documentaries, where they actively become involved in the solution and they have a scroll at the end – you think of films like Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth.
Q: And when you talk about activist documentaries, do you think it’s necessarily ethical or unethical to not take on that activist role in human rights films?
A: When you live in a society like ours where there’s a social safety net, where there’s help for the people in need that you’re filming, I don’t think it’s unethical just to film them without becoming activists and advocating for their welfare. When there aren’t necessarily social safety nets in place, though, or when there are people in immediate danger, there is a responsibility that filmmakers must have, whether that be to help them or not make their situations worse. I think of anarcho-personalism, the philosophy of the Catholic Worker [Movement] founder Dorothy Day. Look at the situation and what’s around you, and ask if you have an ethical responsibility at that moment.
But here’s the thing about film. There may be some ethical concerns – like my film For I Know My Weakness where my subject was an alcoholic and she ended up dying of her disease – but you can’t get footage without immersing yourself in people’s problems. There have been plenty of really excellent films in which the immersion is so compelling, and yet the people aren’t saved. So it isn’t always the responsibility of the documentary filmmaker to be an activist, but if you’re going to immerse yourself in difficult social situations, you have to be prepared for the blowback you might get. Sometimes you just can’t help your subject – and filmmakers come back traumatized at times from that. But you do all you can do in that moment as a human being in that moment, and that’s anarcho-personalism. … There is no ethics department on the street, you either give a person a cup of water or shut them out and head back to Hollywood – it’s your moral philosophy that guides you.
Q: And how do you think the emotion that comes from working with these sensitive subject matters is addressed in the filmmaking community?
A: I think it’s insufficient. … I hear a lot of people talking about best case scenarios, but if a documentary filmmaker needs support, say emotional support, you would have to develop your own support network, especially for independent filmmakers. You need to make sure that, if you're going to make a difficult documentary that's going to put you in danger or if your subjects are already in danger, that you talk to a lot of people. You need to get a community around you of people who are supportive, because you'll need it – and even if you think you don’t, if it turns out you do, then they’ll be there.
To find out more about John Dentino, you can find him here.
GOOD DOCS FILMMAKER
As I continue my inquiry on ethics in the filmmaking community, I thought it interesting to look closer into GOOD DOCS itself. With GOOD DOCS’ focus on human rights films, I knew that those involved would likely provide an interesting perspective – something my interview with filmmaker Ben-Alex Dupris affirmed. Our conversation was extremely insightful, and helped give me a closer lens into the very company that I am working and writing for, as well as into his own personal experiences.
BEN-ALEX DUPRIS – Heritage, Capitalism, and Convergence
For my final interview of the series, I spoke with Ben-Alex Dupris, an awarded Miniconjou Lakota filmmaker and member of the Colville Confederated Tribes. Ben-Alex was a prominent collaborator in the GOOD DOCS film Inhabitants: Indigenous Perspectives on Restoring our World, and has directed and produced several other documentaries. An excerpt from our interview is as follows:
Q: So can you tell me about some stuff that you’ve been working on recently, especially as they relate to our conversation about ethics?
A: As a Native American documentary filmmaker, ethics are infused into the conversations that I have within my communities to have a career. Without my ethical relationships to my own community, I wouldn’t be allowed to go any further.
Recently, I’ve been working on a film where I followed a team to the NABI tournament in Phoenix. It’s the national high school basketball championships for Native Americans, but it’s also a catalyst for a lot of those kids getting educational opportunities and getting looked at by scouts and colleges that could pick these kids up for academics. Native people have historically been excluded from educational opportunities across the board, so it’s an interesting way to fuse politics, sports, and academics.
The film is kind of my version of a generational break in the way that documentary is seen. It’s trying to show people that documentary doesn’t have to be conventional or boring and drenched in social justice issues. A lot of films don’t really reflect the everyday lives of Native kids on the reservation who don’t have the privilege of thinking about climate disasters because they’re literally trying to figure out how to eat week to week. Documentary is failing Indigenous people because it continues, by and large, to platform films driven by disaster. And while these stories do deserve the attention they get, films with storytelling that’s inspiring for young Native kids never gets made. So where are those voices? Where are those generational storytellers that can give them the boost to get through school or their broken relationship? They don’t exist. We have to live vicariously in other people’s racial skins to see ourselves in those conventional experiences that most people already have.
Q: I would love to hear you expand some more on how you discuss Indigenous people being brought up in film primarily to represent crises. How would you say it translates on a broader scale?
A: At the end of the day it’s one hundred percent capitalism. It’s what’ll bring a return for the investment of any organization or company that wants to play the dangerous roulette game of being an artist. This is a very careless industry – in the studio system you have the ebbs and flows, the ups and downs, the heartbreaks and films getting destroyed. Let’s not forget that documentary is like the stepchild of the crazy Hollywood industry that exploits itself and eats its young – that’s where the money comes from. So when you talk about what pushes the documentary world forward, it’s kind of what drives the identity and the branding. It’s things like true crime, and outrageous behavior from celebrities and politicians, and recently right wing ideology; it’s really branded and propagated in a way that just feels inauthentic by the time it reaches you. And now you have things like AI and other forms of entertainment, which are kind of breaking down the system further.
The reason why we don’t see enough Native American films is that we’re just not a big market share. Most of the time, interest in Indigenous people flows through certain storylines: missing and murdered Indigenous people, global warming, pipeline revolutions. We have our own stereotypical issues – it’s part of America’s insatiable appetite for distorted storylines about Black and brown people. That’s why I can’t get the movies made that I want to make. It’s not that we don’t have these films, it’s that there’s no money for it, we just don’t have the support in Indian Country. … And so within that tokenization is a byproduct of there not being any representation at all. We’re working in a storyline that has a deficit of understanding of hundreds of years and we have no support on the top end to actually pay for the films that should be made.
I just did a really interesting piece for Patagonia to launch their fiftieth anniversary. It’s a kind of land acknowledgement film to honor the first people that their facilities were built on. … And in comparison to all the other Patagonia films we’re only at like 18 thousand [views] after four or five months. So that’s a reality for me, looking statistically at one of the largest corporate brands in the world and my Native work. It doesn’t matter how good it is, we just don’t have the eyeballs.
The Native doc space right now feels like, to me, that it’s not innovating – because it can’t. But I think that it’s getting to a point where it’s going to blow up, and that tokenism is going to erase, and we’re going to get more transparency about the Indigenous lifestyles in the twenty-first century. But in order for that to happen, some of us have to get an opportunity. Something has to break, and we’re just not at that point. And I think it’s because we don’t have enough representation in the industry to tell people that you shouldn’t just hire non-Native people to tell our stories. And it’s not about just having one Native person behind the scenes either.
Q: As an Indigenous filmmaker, there is clearly such a great importance of storytelling. But on the other end, you work in a capitalist industry like filmmaking which not only exploits people, especially in regards to Indigeneity. How do you as a filmmaker operate in a personal as well as ethical manner that bridges the overlap between these lenses?
A: I’d like to note that I have many amazing mentors in the industry from my fellowships. These are prominent names in the doc world that carry intellectual weight when it comes to talking about diversity and inclusion within our industry, and have been on the front lines of the ethics conversations for decades. With my work, I look up to those mentors and look at the way that they’re doing documentary working groups and shaping the narratives with the International Doc Association.
I think that for the first time in documentary since its inception, we’re having a two way conversation with our subjects. The subjects are getting to the point where they understand monetization on social media apps like TikTok on YouTube, and so now we’re getting to a point in the doc world where we’re crossing hairs with those sites. And I’m not sure if this is a popular conversation in the doc world or if I’m just thinking a lot about this, but the conversion of those two spaces is happening. … You have an industry that’s hungry for new iterations of itself, and you have a growing group of human beings who realize the ability to be commercialized. So for me personally, I’m continuing to find a way to uphold some of the ethos that I’ve been taught by my Firelight and IDA groups that lean more towards a leftist, liberal approach to inclusion, and I’ve been offering that to participants in my films.
In the last five years, I’ve felt a little more liberated and comfortable being honest about these things. And they may only reflect my version of the industry from the Native perspective in my bubble, but I think they are reflective of a lot of voices that are not being represented in the space.
To find out more about Ben-Alex Dupris, you can find him here.
As I close out my internship with GOOD DOCS, and as I close out this article series, I find myself at a sort of crossroads.
On one hand, I am beyond satisfied with the work I have done through the help of numerous filmmakers, as well as for the profound insight I have received. It is a truly special opportunity to speak with such a diverse range of accomplished people – the majority of whom I wouldn’t have the chance to converse with otherwise. Through our conversations, I was affirmed in some of the ideas that I had held prior, but also challenged on what I thought were once-easy ethical issues. I gained new perspectives on topics from proper compensation, to exploitation, to what it means to be an entertainer. For this, and for my talented and gracious participants, I am extremely thankful.
On the other end of my crossroads, though, I find myself wanting to do more. To be the change in the filmmaking world that I wish to see. To get behind the camera and do something about these issues myself.
I wrote these articles from my childhood bedroom in Florida, preparing to return to my Ivy League university. Many of the lectures that I’ll attend back at school will focus on the ills of the world, yet will make very little time to rectify them. I am privileged to be in a space where I can write about ethical violations in film without being subject to them. As such, I find it necessary that we do more than simply dialogue about potential moral gray-areas. This sentiment is not unique to me, rather it is one one echoed by the filmmakers with whom I spoke. The discussions that we have in spaces like these must act as a stepping stone to further, greater action in the filmmaking community.
Having just turned nineteen with minimal experience in film, there are many issues within the documentary world for which I do not have answers. But, with fresh eyes looking towards the industry, I do see ways where I feel we can make ethical improvements – or at least areas to set our focus. Some of my personal takeaways and proposals are as follows:
- Documentaries are inextricable from the real world. This is true both in content and in consequence. As a result, documentary filmmakers have ethical obligations to both their participants and their audience. These responsibilities include transparency about potential biases, protection from harm, and providing resources for upsetting or dangerous matters.
- Documentary participants are human beings before they are subjects. Diluting them to storytelling tools or disregarding their autonomy in the filmmaking process is, by extension, reducing them of their humanity. To avoid this, documentary filmmakers and organizations must create specific guidelines on proper compensation and engagement of participants. These guidelines should be used both during filmmaking and afterwards.
- Documentarians, especially those with large backings, should publicly support work done by smaller, independent filmmakers. This support should especially be extended to projects by diverse filmmakers about diverse topics which are often quieted or set aside in the filmmaking community.
- Documentarians should actively decline projects for which they feel they are not best suited. In a capitalist society such as our own, many decisions are driven primarily by the potential for profit. This often leads to films that cover sensitive issues improperly, films that may retraumatize victims or their families, or other similarly problematic films. Declining work may be a difficult choice, but doing so can set an important precedent.
- Although the documentary community is not a singular governed entity, it is important that the field adopts a sort-of universal code of ethics. These principles should be fluid and adaptable. They should provide concrete examples of what is expected as well as resources to carry through with these expectations. Those who do not follow through with such standards should face the potential to lose public support or accreditation.
These ideas are largely influenced by the filmmakers with whom I spoke. Some contradict certain perspectives, while others simply echo them. Filmmaking, especially ethical filmmaking, is an imperfect art – and these suggestions are likely imperfect solutions. However, by learning from them, discussing them, or even fully disagreeing with them, we can continue an essential conversation surrounding ethics in documentary filmmaking.
The questions on ethics that I ask are not new or novel. This is not to say, however, that such matters are moot points. In fact, it is imperative that we – as filmmakers, or activists, or students, or whatever we may be – challenge ourselves on the topic of ethics in filmmaking. This includes not only asking the questions, but also listening to the answers and making genuine changes. I implore that those in the documentary community continue to hone in on these concerns, and see what more can be said and done in order for genuine progress – both behind and beyond the cameras.
The beauty of documentary filmmaking lies in the sheer versatility of the craft. It is a form that is constantly adapting, one which has been made to include more voices and spotlight more stories, reflective of a similarly changing world. It is my hope that delving into the ethics of filmmaking will bring upon further positive change.