Thursday, May 13, 2010

Documentary Filmmaker Study Brings Ethical Challenges to Light

Documentary filmmaking is a profession of much independence and freedom. But with this freedom comes the need to make decisions that will impact the lives of those being filmed. Those decisions also impact the company airing the film and they impact the viewers. So many parties are being impacted by one person’s (largely on the fly) decision making! And yet, that person is making these decisions in a vacuum – apart from any industry standards or emergency hotline to call for advice.

Assuming the hotline idea is out of the question, do these filmmakers want guidelines? Do they want protection from decisions made by the network that will air their film? If they do, why are they just now bringing this up?

Some of the topics being discussed in this study include:
- Should these filmmakers pay their subjects? If so, how much?
- Should facts be removed from the final cut if they place the subjects lives in mortal danger?
- Should certain “lies” be “ignored” so the filmmaker can gain necessary access to subjects?
- Can historical footage be used to represent a generic event or theme?

These questions are explored in a study by American University scholars in a 26-page report published in September 2009. The official title of the document is Honest Truths: Documentary Filmmaking on Ethical Challenges in Their Work. The study is currently under review by members of Women in Film & Video, a non-profit organization that would like to respond to the needs within its industry. The DC chapter is particularly interested due to the large number of documentary filmmakers in the area, and the number of stations based here which air such films.

If there were an industry-wide standard, would these folks have more protection, or at least firmer ground on which to stand when defending their own work? And, even one would endeavor to write such standards, would getting consensus among documentary filmmakers be little bit like herding cats?

If an industry standard existed, then maybe the networks would have to obey it as well and not pressure documentarians to compromise the integrity of their film in exchange for ratings. The study contains anonymous accounts of pressure from commercial businesses that put these filmmakers in the conundrum of accepting a paycheck while denying their moral code. As funding has dwindled, one of the few steady streams remaining has come from cable, but at what cost to truth?

According to this study, documentary filmmakers would like to know how much they can “fudge” without stepping over the line. The document states: Many filmmakers noted that restaging routine or trivial events such as walking through a door was part and parcel of the filmmaking process and was “not what makes the story honest.” I think fiction, whether in writing or on film, must be full of facts and realism, so that when the crucial fabrication is introduced nobody questions it – you don’t lose your audience. The opposite seems true for documentaries.

The report concludes that boundaries and guidance are needed, as well as a safe environment in which people who work on these documentaries can discuss their challenges. Sounds like a job for the lawyers. My hope is that the result of this report and its ensuing WIFV discussion will lead to a preservation of the art of documentary filmmaking – one that prevents the same downfalls we saw in broadcast news.

The study quotes one filmmaker saying: “I am in their life for a whole year. So there is a more profound relationship, not a journalistic two or three hours.” (p. 9). In the Golden Age of journalism, reporters were given the same autonomy filmmakers have now and the budgets to spend hours on end each day for years investigating one story. But as shareholders gained control of the news industry, those investments disappeared. Today most reporters are just filling in the blanks of Mad Libs written by their publishers. The same will happen, if it hasn’t already, to documentary filmmakers without some sort of preservation.