Filmmaker Norah Shapiro on Her Upcoming Film MAGIC AND MONSTERS and the Importance of Ethics in Documentaries - Part II

Filmmaker Norah Shapiro on Her Upcoming Film MAGIC AND MONSTERS and the Importance of Ethics in Documentaries - Part II
Norah Shapiro is the Director & Producer of  TIME FOR ILHAN
Written by GOOD DOCS intern Kristina Vazquez

GOOD DOCS: How do you curate emotional experiences for the audience without making it expletive or taking advantage of the subjects?

Shapiro: I think some of that comes with paying attention from the get-go of why you're telling the story that you're telling, taking a subject-centered, trauma-informed approach. And I think that it's some of the things I already mentioned as well, like ongoing communication. For sure, it’s also the folks you are collaborating with. I don't want to sit here and pretend that this is a one-woman show. I have producers. We work very collaboratively, always holding ourselves up to that. We made a personal decision not to sensationalize it, in part because I'm not interested in that, but secondly and maybe even more importantly, the commitment that I made to the subjects who decided to go on this journey with me. I should mention this is interesting in that this story isn't something I initially pursued. It kind of came to me in a way. I was invited to have a conversation that I didn't realize was going to move so quickly, what I thought was just about the possibilities. By the end of that conversation, it was clear that I was being invited into this process and this journey to do this, and part of that discussion involved these kinds of intentions.

I made a commitment early on to the main subjects in this film that they would, although the film is independent, I'm the director, they would still have the opportunity for meaningful input. Now what meaningful input means, the devil's in the details. You can have conversations about that and you can write books about that. As of right now, the film's in post-production, and we have done that process, we have shared the cut and processed it with each of our main subjects. I think that kind of a thing answers your question about how you bring to the audience something that is emotionally authentic and has craft and the art of a professional filmmaking team, but that does have those safety breaks, if you will, or those guarantees against it being exploitive. I hope none of the subjects feel exploited. I'm sure there are parts that each one of them doesn't love. We talked about that from the beginning, that that would be the case. Each one of them did absolutely have the opportunity to have meaningful input, and we made changes based on that input. And again, that's where I say I think ultimately the end product is better for it. And I certainly can sleep better for it.

GOOD DOCS: What do you think needs to change about or within the documentary industry to make it more ethical?

Shapiro: You can put that I chuckled. You know, this is a much bigger conversation about the funding streams and the distribution streams in the documentary world that, you know, are broken. And so if audiences want documentaries and want documentary and care about them being ethically made, I think there has to be a reckoning with the funding streams of what it costs to do this work and how those resources get to the filmmakers. I certainly don't presume to have the answers. It's problematic when you have these big commercial audiences, especially for example, in the true crime genre. And that's where a lot of the films that are at the heart of that film, the documentary Subject, come into play. I think maybe, I don't know exclusively, but predominantly those are in the true crime genre. It's tricky. There's other questions, though.

There's other questions that go back to who's telling whose stories. Traditionally, it used to be considered absolutely forbidden for documentary subjects to ever be compensated. That comes up in the film Subject. That's starting to shift and change a little bit, but power dynamics between the filmmakers and the subjects. But I also think, you know, the role of the marketplace has some role to play in in the industry in terms of ethics like who's being paid and who's profiting from this? There's a lot of talk about the golden age of documentaries. I think everyone would agree we're not in the golden age of documentaries, and it was golden for a very tiny few, but for people that love documentaries and the role that they play in a democracy and in a thinking society, we have to think about what goes into them being made.

GOOD DOCS: Next, in your years working documentaries, how have you seen a dialogue about ethics change and or say the same?

Shapiro: Oh, it's changed radically. I mean, these conversations are both about who's telling whose stories, who's being extractive as a filmmaker versus relational? What is the role of a subject versus the almighty filmmaker? Those are all questions that perhaps some individual people were asking themselves. But those were not at the forefront when I began doing this work. It was very much this whole question of documentary filmmakers who sees an interesting story, swoops in and does their thing and then puts it out there. A recent and welcome change for the big funders for documentaries, is requiring filmmakers to really address what their connection to a story is, What care they are taking for the community impacted. What care are they taking for their teams in some cases? What their connections in the realm are. So I think those are all huge steps in the right direction. And again, the work that I mentioned of DAWG, D-A-W-G, the Documentary Working Group, these questions are also being addressed by the Documentary Producers Alliance. These are newer conversations, and thankfully so.

GOOD DOCS: Okay. What do you want students who want to enter the documentary field to learn about ethics in documentary filmmaking?

Shapiro: It's not just about the camera gear and the festivals and the audience awards and the ‘oh, I want to tell stories’. It's also how do you tell stories ethically? How do you tell stories with care? That has to be there from the get-go. I think that has to be as important a factor in the process as any of the other variables are. And I know one of my producers on this project is getting her PhD in sociology and she's focused on these issues and these questions. And I know there are many other people doing this work. And so I feel confident that the materials are out there for students who are studying this to avail themselves of. And as I mentioned to you, I'm going to give you a bunch of links to resources that I think will be very helpful, just as a starting point.

GOOD DOCS: Is there anything else we haven't talked about that you'd like to like to touch on?

Shapiro: Bruce Shapiro, (no relation) Executive Director of the DART Center who did the training for us and created the DART Center and is a brilliant man and is in the film comes to mind. I think he said this quote that I keep going back to over and over again, that I think pertains both to this project and more broadly. He said, legal justice is not the only thing that people need. People also need a kind of a narrative justice, they need the story to be told. That's something that I kept and keep going back to, on this film and is a thing for students to think about and other people to think about is the role that documentaries play, potentially for people who've been harmed. It can be a validating and powerful experience not for everybody, but for some people to be the subject of a documentary, seen through a filmmakers lens. My experience has been that it's been a really empowering, validating, experience, the opposite of the gaslighting that a lot of people go through that tends to get them to agree to even go through what is a very difficult process of opening yourself up to, to have a camera crew following you around asking you about some of the most deeply personal and often, certainly, in this case, painful and traumatic experiences. But at the end of the day, I also believe that that is what makes, this film in this case, a redemptive story and the medium of documentary film, a redemptive medium tool. It's why I love it so much. I don't believe in just subjecting an audience to the trauma. I wouldn't. I wouldn't be doing that if I didn't think that there was beauty and hope and healing and redemption in the process in this story, and there is for sure.

Thank you so much to GOOD DOCS for the opportunity to have this conversation!


Considering a Trauma-Informed Process in Documentary Filmmaking | Independent Documentary Association
Ethics and Accountability: A View from the U.S.A | POV Magazaine
Documentary Accountability Resources | Documentary Accountability Working Group

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