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6 Tips for Documentary Filmmakers on How to Better Serve Participants with Gender-Based Trauma

By Hansen Bursic

It is no secret that documentary filmmaking has a complicated legacy when it comes to supporting the survivors of gender-based violence. Even with the best intentions, many filmmakers fall into dangerous extractive patterns and use practices that end up doing more harm than good for a participant. Last week, IDA and the Documentary Accountability Working Group hosted a panel discussion on how filmmakers and journalists can ethically tell these important stories without harming survivors. Here are six key takeaways from the discussion, as well as suggestions and resources for a trauma-informed approach to documentary.

1. No filmmaker is exempt from causing potential harm.

“No matter what your identity is, you have a certain amount of power when you have a camera.” This was one of the first things said at last week's panel by Natalie Bullock-Brown of the Documentary Accountability Working Group. It goes without saying that documentarians have an inherent power over their participants’ story, which leaves room for potential harm. It is always an important reminder that any person who assumes the responsibility and status of a filmmaker can do harm, even if they share experiences or identities with their participants. 

2. Consent is an evolving process, not a one-time action.

This one is extra important: it is vital that filmmakers don’t treat consent like a one-and-done action. Consent can always be revoked, and it is irresponsible to disregard this reality. Don’t lose sight that beyond your project, these are people's lives. Even if you have “legal” consents in place, it is always a best practice to be checking in at various stages of production, especially before the film goes public.

Be aware of the complexities of consent in certain situations. Maybe you are not pressuring people into telling their stories, but their community or family might be. Panelist Sherizaan Minwalla, a human-rights lawyer and researcher, found, in a study of how the media portrayed sexual abuse surviors of ISIS, that many of these women were pressured to share their stories by community leaders to help get national attention and aid. 

When it comes to minors, going beyond the strict definition of legal consent is the best way to ensure the safety and wellbeing of the participants. There is a notable difference between what is legal and what is ethical. Be mindful that parental consent might not be enough in some instances. Always check in with the minors themselves to make sure they are comfortable and continue to check in as they grow up and understand more about their trauma. Panelist Belkis Wille, who is a researcher at Human Rights Watch, noted that, in her work with young people, they judge on a case by case basis wether or not a person can consent for themselves. This is regardless if they can legally consent or not.

3. Offer tangible care for your participant.

It is an extremely painful process for many to talk about their traumatic experiences. Sometimes, participants might not even know how painful it will be to do this until they begin. There are a few ways filmmakers can be proactive and build a safe environment for these survivors. 

Consider building a psychologist or trauma expert into your budget for your participants. Too often, participants  tell their stories for the first time ever to documentary cameras. For a participant that has survived trauma, it is quite likely more appropriate for them to share their story to a mental health professional for the first time, rather than a filmmaker or journalist. Another thing filmmakers can do is ask the subject to bring a friend, family member, or attorney so they have someone to lean on. 

Also consider the makeup of your team. A room full of men might make survivors uncomfortable, or a room full of white people in the case of a person of color. You always need to ask yourself, “Is this the right team to tell this story?” or “Am I the right person to tell this story?”

4. Transparency is key.

One of the biggest problems filmmakers run into is when a participant doesn’t understand the project they signed up for. There is a big difference between an interview for a small TV spot and a major documentary project. Make sure your participants know what your ambitions are for the film. What's the scope of the project? How much will they appear in it? Where do you want this to screen? What are your desires for the life of the film vs what you can actually say for certain will happen. Be as transparent as possible.

Make sure that the participant knows what they are getting into. Neither you or the participant can fully know what impact the film may have on their life. Make sure you warn them of the risks as best as you can and keep in touch with them so you can assist them if the film impacts them adversely. It is also important to not promise that the project will fix their problems. Be honest about what your underlying goals and values are in sharing their story, in spite of the unknown journey ahead. 

5. Anonymous really means anonymous. 

Anonymity might be the difference between life and death for certain survivors who are at risk of retaliation for sharing their story. Do not take that lightly. Always give participants the option to be anonymous, and keep them anonymous throughout the film if they request it. This includes even just eyes or certain distinguishing features. Do everything in your power to conceal their identity. 

6. Be prepared for an interview to evolve.

Preparing yourself before an interview is always the best practice, but when it comes to interviewing those with gender-based trauma, you might need to change what you prepared to accommodate the sensitive nature of the discussion. Don’t push participants to share painful details. Instead, think, “What does this person want to share about their experience?”

A participant might change their mind mid-interview on whether they are ready to talk about their experience. It can be challenging to walk away from an interview, especially if you have invested a lot, but it is wrong to pressure anyone into sharing their story. 

Here are some additional resources for filmmakers on this topic:

Hansen Bursic is the Digital Communications Coordinator at IDA. He is also a filmmaker and freelance writer with bylines in CinéSPEAK and QBurgh.