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Considering a Trauma-Informed Process In Documentary Filmmaking

By Natalie Bullock Brown

Silhouettes of children running in a group, against a yellow background. Courtesy of the artist, Arak Rattanawijittakorn/Shutterstock.

Nearly six years ago, in 2016, a story out of Rutherford County, Tennessee became something of a national outrage, although many of us missed the news. Four Black girls — one in sixth grade, two in fourth grade, and one in third grade —were arrested at school for a crime that a recent ProPublica article suggests was illegitimate. Apparently, the children watched and were accused of doing little to stop a “fight” in which a five- and a six-year-old boy threw feeble punches at an older child. And as a result, the children were accused of the trumped-up charge of “criminal responsibility”—for a fight in which no one was hurt; the aggressors were little boys; and at least one of the onlookers can be heard telling one of the boys throwing punches to stop.

A video of the fight, made fuzzy by an applied filter, circulated. County officials, including a police officer and sometime school resource officer named Crystal Templeton, decided that the children in the video — who can’t be identified because of the video filter — should be arrested, processed and detained at the local juvenile detention center. After talking to one of the girls in the video, who admitted to seeing the fight and is heard in the video saying “Stop, Tay Tay,” Templeton included her in the 11 petitions ultimately issued for the arrest of the children who saw the exchange. When police came to the elementary school, the four girls whose stories begin the ProPublica report were traumatized to the point that one fell to her knees upon being handcuffed, and two burst into tears. The fourth girl threw up.

I found out about this story in October after reading ProPublica reporter Ken Armstrong’s Twitter thread. As a Black woman and a mother of two Black teenagers, the thought of little Black girls being treated in such a cruel and inhumane manner was incredibly painful to consider. Then to further learn of the white women responsible for the cruelty — Rutherford County Juvenile Court Judge Donna Scott Davenport and Rutherford County Juvenile Detention Center Director Lynn Duke, not to mention Crystal Templeton — sent my mind into a tailspin: “This is so freakin’ typical”... “This is Amerikkka”... “This shit would NOT happen to white kids of any age.”...

“This story needs to be told in a documentary.”

I am a documentary filmmaker—a creative who, in particular, is committed to making films that promote social justice. And as documentary filmmakers of all ilks are likely to do when we read or hear of a story that so clearly reflects a miscarriage of justice, we begin to think about what it would take to make a film that will address the issues at stake and make some sort of moral restitution to the people and communities wronged. That’s exactly what I began to think about after reading Armstrong’s Twitter thread.

And then I had to give the idea a second thought.

"It should not be surprising that this type of values-informed approach to documentary filmmaking, that’s steeped in taking care of film participants and is concerned with their trauma, is not the rule."

- Natalie Bullock Brown, Filmmaker and DAWG Member

For the past year or so I’ve been engaged in imagining, writing about, and promoting what an equitable, ethical approach to documentary filmmaking can look like with my comrades in the Documentary Accountability Working Group (DAWG). As a result, I quickly went beyond thinking that what’s happening in Rutherford County needs to be documented in a film, to thinking almost exclusively about the little Black kids at the center of the story — kids who along with their families are, for all intents and purposes, the likely participants of any film that might chronicle what happened back in 2016, and the far-reaching implications of a local Tennessee justice system gone rogue at the expense of the Black community. Too often, it’s the folk whose stories make documentaries possible who are the last to be considered when a film project is conceived and pursued. But the work that I’ve been immersed in with DAWG has truly impressed upon me the importance of centering the care and well-being of film participants at the onset of a film’s development, particularly when participants are from marginalized communities, and especially when the story to be told about those communities is marked with trauma.

It should not be surprising that this type of values-informed approach to documentary filmmaking, that’s steeped in taking care of film participants and is concerned with their trauma, is not the rule. After all, the man credited with originating the form set the tone nearly 100 years ago.

The documentary form as we know it is widely attributed to the work of filmmaker Robert Flaherty, a white man who in 1922 embedded himself in an Alaskan community in order to document an Inuit man and his alleged family in their natural habitat. The resulting film, Nanook of the North, is in many ways a model for the type of extractive, inauthentic filmmaking that is far too often funded and supported in the contemporary documentary field. At the time of Nanook of the North’s release, press surrounding the film assured Hollywood audiences that Flaherty’s representations of Eskimo life were “real.” Yet the family that surrounds “Nanook” (not even the title character’s real name) was selected by Flaherty to play the roles; Nanook’s igloo had only three walls, a chilly scenario for the participant but one that prioritized easy access inside of the home for Flaherty and his cameras; and while Nanook — whose name was actually Allakariallak — is featured with a spear while hunting walruses and seals, Eskimo men at that time actually hunted for their food with guns.

I’d like to think that I wouldn’t go to the lengths that Flaherty did in order to capitalize on what I deem to be an important, meaningful story. We’ve seen recent examples of the way liberties taken with storytelling can backfire and erode audience trust and the credibility of the field when doc filmmakers do anything remotely deceptive to make the films they think they need to make. Ask folks like Morgan Neville, who used AI in his film Roadrunner to fake the voice of Anthony Bourdain, posthumously; or the filmmakers behind the once-lauded Sabaya, which promptly got pulled from major screenings when questions of whether or not the vulnerable victims of sexual imprisonment and abuse at the center of the film had even consented to participate. Sonya Childress, my sister in DAWG, who has written eloquently on ethical storytelling in the doc field, often says that a filmmaker doesn’t have to have ill intentions, or even a lack of self-awareness, to do real harm to the people in their film. Because even if participants consent, the real question is, How will a filmmaker take care of them throughout the filmmaking process? And what does a filmmaker have to know or think about in order to mitigate any harm to the greatest extent possible?

These are the questions I now ask myself, and that came to mind as I seized on the idea of beginning the process of conceptualizing a film on Rutherford County and its tendency to arrest and jail mainly Black children instead of resorting to more humane punishments for minor, if not non-existent, infractions.

Following the values-based framework that DAWG has been developing for over a year, I first thought about myself as a filmmaker: Why me? Why should I be the one to take on this film? True, I’m Black, and a mom with a heart for Black children. But I’m not a resident of Tennessee, let alone Rutherford County. Does that matter? Should it? What would it take for me to tell a story about an experience that isn’t my own in a community hundreds of miles from where I live in a way that is just and nuanced, and ultimately, helpful and impactful to the communities being harmed?

"Because even if participants consent, the real question is, How will a filmmaker take care of them throughout the filmmaking process?"

- Natalie Bullock Brown referencing Sonya Childress, Impact Producer and DAWG Member

I then thought about the process of gaining access to the people — including young children — who are at the heart of the Rutherford County story. How would I feel asking the parents of these children if they’d allow me to tell their stories? And what would I do if they said no? Would I keep asking, hoping to eventually wear them down? For how long would I pursue them? Would it be traumatizing for me to pursue them at all? Is there a way to pursue without trauma? And isn’t persistent pursuit coercion?

Dr. Kameelah Mu’Min Rashad — a psychologist whose areas of expertise are identity, trauma and healing, and has shared with DAWG recommendations for what she calls “liberatory, healing-centered filmmaking” — would say yes. During recent convenings with participants from a number of documentary films, we invited Dr. Rashad because we didn’t know what participants would share, or what kind of trauma that sharing might dredge up. We were also trying to mimic the type of care filmmaker Assia Boundaoui modeled when she enlisted Dr. Rashad to be a part of production for The Feeling of Being Watched, which includes her own family members and neighbors.

What Dr. Rashad provided for DAWG, however, was so much more than we expected. She listened deeply to what our convening participants said and didn’t say, and affirmed when they shared that they felt “like a dissected frog” as a result of their participation in a film. They wished they had known that the film they were in would take many more years to complete than expected. Dr. Rashad understands the ways that trauma is created through the intersection of various systems, including white supremacy, capitalism and patriarchy. As a result, she was able to provide context and a framework for the multiplicity of issues at play for participants from marginalized communities, especially where trauma is a part of the experience; and how all of that affects not only participants, but their families and extended communities, and even the filmmakers and their crews.

There is a lot to consider when a filmmaker endeavors to tell a story that is not their own, and that features people from a vulnerable community, possibly marked with trauma, who have suffered harm. As Jim LeBrecht, co-director of Crip Camp, recently told me, At the end of the day, accountable storytelling is really about “how we treat each other.” It’s also about how we treat ourselves. Which is why reflection and introspection must be the first part of any production process if filmmakers care at all about the harm they might cause, in addition to the harm they hope to address in a documentary.

I’m still considering a film about what’s going on in Rutherford County. But as Bhawin Suchak, my comrade in DAWG, recently suggested, A film about the systems at play that have been traumatizing Black and Brown children in Rutherford County (and likely, throughout the United States) might be a better focus for a film than the children who’ve already gone through enough. Because if cruelty is the point, no film, no matter my intention, is worth even a small amount of additional trauma. Moreover, if the documentary field is going to shift away from the legacy of extraction and some-timey ethics that have, to a large degree, characterized the past 100 years of the form, then the filmmakers, funders, distributors and other stakeholders — all of us that make up the documentary ecosystem — will have to contend with how to make care, and not harm, the point.

Natalie Bullock Brown is an award-winning producer, an Assistant Teaching Professor in Interdisciplinary Studies at North Carolina State University, a 2021 Rockwood JustFilms Fellow, and a proud member of the Documentary Accountability Working Group (DAWG). She also worked as StoryShift Strategist for Working Films, with which she collaborated in the organization’s deep engagement in the promotion of ethical and accountable documentary storytelling.