Skip to main content

How Close Is Too Close? A Consideration of the Filmmaker-Subject Relationship

By Lisa Leeman

Film still from 'Balseros.', featuring a group of people on a small make-shift raft at sea.

On Monday, November 16, filmmaker Renee Tajima-Peña will be in conversation with Turner Classic Movies' Ben Mankiewicz to discuss her decades-long filmmaking career and highlight clips from her inspiring body of work. Tickets to the event can be purchased now!

In the spring of 1989, Janet Malcolm sparked a firestorm in the journalism community with her New Yorker article "The Journalist and the Murderer." Ostensibly about the unconventional relationship between author Joe McGinness and the subject of his book, accused murderer Jeffrey MacDonald, the piece was really an essay on the ethics of journalism. For the purposes of this article, try substituting "documentary filmmaker" for "journalist."

Malcolm didn't pull any punches; she made the case that all journalism, by its nature, is "morally indefensible." She wrote that a journalist "is a kind of confidence man, preying on people's vanity, ignorance or loneliness, gaining their trust and betraying them without remorse." She went on to compare the act of journalism to a seduction, in which the author always ends up betraying the subject.

As much as documentary filmmakers worry about being true to our subjects, we also fret about betraying "the reality" of what we're filming. And yet, the dictum to not interfere with "reality" often directly contradicts our most human impulses. Most of us walk a fine line between being strictly observational filmmakers and compassionate human beings. What are we to do when the people we are filming are hungry, cannot pay their utility bill or are about to lose custody of their child due to an inability to navigate the social service bureaucracy? Whether or not to intervene in a subject's life and how to do so; this is the dirty little secret of most documentary filmmakers.

Compounding things is the depth of relationship that develops between many documentary filmmakers and the people in their films in long-form character-based work, when the film is made over a number of years. Think of Hoop Dreams (Peter Gilbert, Steve James, Frederick Marx; seven years); Balseros (Carlos Bosch and Josep M. Domenech; eight years) or, the über-example, Michael Apted's Up series (42 years and counting), in which a real intimacy grows between filmmaker and subject.

When Susan Froemke, Albert Maysles and Deborah Dickson made Lalee's Kin—a sensitive look at poverty in the Mississippi Delta—by following the family of great-grandmother Lalee Wallace, the filmmakers were constantly faced with the fact that it would be very easy for them to ease the family's poverty while they were filming.  "After we finished the film," Maysles recalls, "NPR did a story on it, and played a scene where Lalee's granddaughter can't go to school because she doesn't have a paper or pencil. The next day I got an irate e-mail saying, ‘How could you do that? Couldn't you help her out and supply the paper and pencil?' Then the next day, I got a call from someone in Georgia, who had also heard the story, and she said that she and her friends were on their way down to Mississippi to help out Lalee's family.

"That's why it's so important to get the story," Maysles continues. "And to the people you're filming, to get the story out. When we showed Lalee the film, she said, ‘That's the truth—couldn't you make it any longer?' People getting their stories told can be as important or even more important than anything else. That applies to their suffering, their vulnerabilities, even what they're kind of ashamed of.   Of course, often after filming, when we were about to leave, we'd buy Lalee groceries; we felt that then it couldn't interfere with anything. And since then, we keep in touch, send the family gifts." 

Renee Tajima-Peña (Who Killed Vincent Chin?, My America...or Honk if You Love Buddha) concurs: "People really do appreciate having their stories told. As an Asian-American, I remember growing up and thinking that my life experience was completely irrelevant. There was nothing in the media about the way I lived, or people that looked like me, that had any relevance at all to anyone else in America. So I don't underestimate the power of having your story told. It's validating your experience."

Steve James faced an ethical choice when he was shooting Hoop Dreams. For one of the subjects of the film, Arthur Agee, the power was shut off at his family's home for failure to pay the bill. "It was a very sad development for this family," James recalls. "They were very proud, they'd never been on welfare, and all this was happening. And so we went over and filmed it. Then we cobbled together some cash to help them get their lights turned back on. Arthur's mother, Sheila, asked me ‘What will people think of us? We've never been on welfare, our power is turned off. People are going to think we're bad people.' And I said, ‘No, people aren't going to think you're bad people. People are going to see what has happened to you, and maybe for the first time they will actually understand that the stereotypes they have about people on welfare are not true.' That was the kind of situation where we try to be human beings in the process, but at the same time, capture the realities of their lives in as honest a way as we could without compromising our essential humanness. We need to be more than just filmmakers. And it's a tough line to walk."

Another film that presented intrinsically ethical challenges to the filmmakers is Balseros, a Spanish documentary that follows seven Cubans as they prepare and set out to sea in homemade rafts in a risky attempt to migrate to the United States. The film then follows the refugees through their capture at sea and incarceration in Guantanamo Bay, their patriation in the US and their respective journeys as they struggle in their new homeland. Director Carlos Bosch observes, "All my life I've been confronted by filming people who are deeply in need. With Balseros, we had this problem from the very beginning. You were there; you knew they needed a compass—imagine, one of my characters, even if he didn't have a compass, he was determined to leave. And you knew that just by buying him a compass for $20—nothing for me and the crew—you might change his life; maybe he will not die. 

"A journalist must never interfere," Bosch continues. "For example, because of you, someone is doing something that produces news. No, that is not OK. The big difference here is that the guy is absolutely determined to leave, even without a compass. The important thing here is that he will not leave only because I gave him the compass."

Another character in Balseros, Misclaida, tells the filmmakers, on camera, that she will turn tricks with foreigners that night to make the last $30 for her raft. The filmmakers ask her if she minds if they film her when she goes out that evening. She agrees, and they film her putting on her makeup and preparing to go out. "This woman was determined to be a prostitute," Bosch says. "After we filmed her, we asked her how much money she would make in a night like this. She told us maybe $30. So we said, ‘OK, here you have $30. Now go home.' But we managed to film the ordinary life of this girl. She didn't know we wouldn't keep filming her as she went out to turn tricks."

Often situations are not such a matter of life and death, but are serious considerations for documentarians. When Tajima-Peña was filming the story of the Flores family for the upcoming PBS series The New Americans, which follows people as they immigrate to the US, she faced many questions of whether or not to intervene in the lives of the family she was filming. "The Flores family had struggled for 13 years to get their immigration papers, so the family could join Pedro, the father who was working in a meat-packing factory in Kansas while the family remained in Mexico," she affirms. "Now they were very close to succeeding, but there was one day when they had to make it to the state capitol to get their visa papers by a certain time. If they didn't make it, at least one or two of the children wouldn't have a chance of coming to the States. We knew that if they took the bus, which they were planning to do, they'd never make it. We had a Suburban. We were going to film them anyway. It just seemed incredibly cruel to have this knowledge that they'd worked 13 years for this moment, and we had this big Suburban, and we'd just drive to the location and wait for them to not get there on time! I just couldn't do it. So we drove them. I'm sure you could spend hours debating whether we should have, but it just seemed the right thing to do. The film was not worth the destruction of a 13-year-old dream for a family of eight." 

Did Tajima-Peña consider acknowledging the crew's assistance in the film, in the spirit of full disclosure? "To put in what tiny things can throw a family off might have been interesting, but I didn't really think it would be," she says. "Their struggle was so immense." How does she answer the charge that she "messed with reality?" "I change the reality every time I turn the camera on and put up lights. I'm really more of a storyteller; as long as I'm getting the story across, there are certain details that aren't necessarily needed—the minute-by-minute advance of time and space and reality. If the overall story was, in this case, the hunger of families to reunite, to immigrate to the US, that story is getting across.

"Life is not in three acts, where there is a set-up, exposition, then climax and resolution," Tajima-Peña continues. "When you're talking about poverty, abandonment, it's really a long-term situation where a lot of things go wrong. It's not like you're sacrificing the purity of the story by intervening in a certain way."

But she was faced with a more wrenching quandary: "Another decision we had to confront was when the family was at their immigration interview in Juarez, and they were told that only half the family could immigrate because they didn't have enough sponsors. The whole crew looked at me and [co-producer] Vangie Griego to sponsor them, and we said no. I talked to my husband and Vangie talked to her partner, but we were lucky that the family pretty quickly on their own found sponsors. Had they asked us, I honestly don't know what I would have said to them."

Sometimes our compassionate impulse backfires. When Bosch was first shooting Balseros, one of the men he'd been following was pushed out of the raft by some unsavory boatmates. "This man, Rafael, lost all the money he had—his Bible, his shoes, he had nothing," Bosch recalls. "We took him home and filmed him telling his mother; she didn't even know he was trying to leave Cuba. When she heard that he had lost his shoes, she started to cry desperately. This was back in '94, when people had no money, things were terrible. So after five hours of filming, and telling his mother not to cry, I gave the guy $30 to buy a pair of shoes. Remember, at this time I was only producing news; I was not thinking of making a documentary. The next day I saw him, and he had a pair of shoes his cousin had given him.  He said to me, ‘Carlos, you don't mind if with that $30 I try to find another boat?' ‘Oh, big problem!' I said. ‘I don't know, please don't ask me!' Back in Spain, I always wondered what happened to Rafael; I felt a bit responsible. This is not something I want to have on my conscience. Anyway, I was very happy to find him in Guantanamo!" Rafael eventually did make it to the US, and as the film ends, he is living in a fundamentalist Christian group home.

 "You know, you film it—the turmoil—then you help them out," Tajima-Peña asserts.  "Even then you have to make the decision: is it cruel to let them experience that crisis?  For example, if you're filming and someone is told they have a terminal illness, and you know it's a wrong diagnosis, will you let them go through even 24 hours of thinking they have six months to live?  I don't think I would. It really does come down to standards of humanity."

After the initial shoot on Steve James' latest documentary, Stevie, the subject, Stevie Fielding, was arrested for child molestation. James and ­­­­­Fiedling had an hours-long discussion on whether or not to continue filming. "I told him that this would be an honest film," James asserts. "But I also promised him that it would be a sympathetic and compassionate look at him as a person. Whether he was innocent or not, I wasn't out to get him."

 "To this day, I've never really resolved the issue of having made Stevie," James allows. "When Stevie and I had that discussion, I told him that I think there are a lot of people out there that have been through some of what he's been through, and people don't understand that. People that go to movies don't see those lives, or see them shown in compassionate ways. And that's what I want to do here, is educate people."

"I'm glad if the film can do some of those things that I said to Stevie," James continues. "I feel less good about it in this sense: this film puts in very stark terms that whole thing that many documentary filmmakers struggle with—that when you're following people's lives, and tragedy or misfortune befalls them, that little voice in the back of your head says, ‘This makes for a better film,' and that little voice is undeniable. The great part of this kind of documentary filmmaking is that you really get to know people and intimately submerge yourself into lives that are different from yours, and you're profoundly moved at times by their courage and resilience, or saddened by their tragedy. It's a very profound human experience that you have in the course of making the film. The unfortunate thing is that you don't always feel like a good person for having done it. There are times when you feel like you're just a leech."

Tajima-Pena concedes that there may be an exploitation factor in filmmaking, but that it depends on what the subject gets out of the whole process, and how filmmakers treat people during it. "It almost always comes down to ‘do no harm,' like in the medical field," she says. "But it's true that you can't always know if the film will do someone harm."

Ultimately, we documentarians hope that our films can have a positive impact—that our subjects' sacrifices and generosity in opening up their lives to the world can do some good, break down stereotypes, foster understanding among divergent people and affect public policy positively. 

"The most important thing is the love you give to people," Maysles says. "That way you get the best film and respect the people you're filming. It becomes a much more loving world when we begin to understand each other."

Further reading on the ethics of documentary filmmaking: 

  • New Challenges for Documentary, Alan Rosenthal
  • Directing the Documentary, Michael Rabiger
  • "The Journalist and the Murderer," Janet Malcolm, The New Yorker, March 13 & 20, 1989
  • "Dangerous Liaisons: Journalists and their Sources," Interviews with Martin Gottlieb, Columbia Journalism Review, July/August 1989

Lisa Leeman is a filmmaker living in Los Angeles, and grapples with these questions on every film she makes.