Skip to main content

Fast Foreword: The Editor's Column, June 2003

By Tom White

Dear Readers,

Last year, we profiled Steps for the Future, a massive international co-production of some 40 media works that addressed the AIDS pandemic in Southern Africa. This year, HBO, its parent company AOL Time Warner, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and filmmaker Rory Kennedy have combined forces to present Pandemic: Facing AIDS, which tells the stories of five infected patients on five different continents, each of whom contracted the disease in different ways. And the documentary, airing on HBO on June 15, is the central component of a cluster of interrelated projects that began at the AIDS Conference in Barcelona in July of last year. Pandemic: Facing AIDS includes a touring exhibition of 100 photographs from 50 different countries, along with a book of these photographs; a CD of music either contained in the film or that addresses the theme; a website ( in five different languages; and educational materials.

While a documentary is a vital tool for promulgating a message about a powerful issue such as AIDS, it is the subject of your documentary—the main character in the story you want to tell—who is essential to humanizing that message. And when you spend time with a subject, you inevitably find yourself in an ethical quandary. Where do you draw the line with your character? How much do you help-and stay true to both your film and your humanity? What is your responsibility? Lisa Leeman explores those questions and more with such filmmakers as Steve James, Renee Tajima-Peña, Albert Maysles and Carlos Bosch.

There's also the question of funding your film—or, more precisely, who funds your film and what they expect in return. There are the usual suspects from foundations and government agencies, but what about corporate sponsors? What is the ethical cost of funding? How do you maintain control of your film-and keep your sponsor happy? Kathleen Fairweather talks to people who have faced these issues themselves.

Then there's the issue of what is accessible and what is inaccessible—and what is public and what is not. Steve Rosenbaum looks into the murky territories of "fair use" and "public domain," and offers sound advice to you, the citizen filmmaker, in claiming your rights to film what is clearly open to the public.  

But sometimes when you're documenting volatile situations like protests, demonstrations or civil unrests, your rights as filmmakers may seem irrelevant to those charged with protecting and serving. Rebecca Harrell, who experienced firsthand a violation of her civil rights while filming a protest, shares (with the help of her attorney) some insights about the laws that actually protect you, the filmmaker, and how to use them to your advantage.


Yours in actuality, 

Thomas White