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On the Path to a New Ethical Framework in the Documentary Practice

By Tom White

From Jacqueline Olive's 2004 film, 'Always in Season'

The issue of ethics has driven the documentary field in various ways and in various degrees of emphases and urgency since the beginnings of the art form, when Robert Flaherty’s 1922 documentary Nanook of the North would later be taken to task about its use of reenactments and recreations, and in more recent years, as a prototype for extractive storytelling. The 2009 study from the Center for Media and Social Impact, "Honest Truths: Documentary Filmmakers on Ethical Challenges in Their Work," spearheaded by then Center Director Pat Aufderheide and research fellows Peter Jaszi and Mridu Chandra, catalyzed the field-wide discussion at the time, and five years later, at the first Getting Real convening, Aufderheide led a session of filmmakers relating their own ethical quandaries that they’ve faced in their work.

The Need

Over the past couple of years, a number of incidents at key festivals such as True/False, Sundance and Full Frame, in which questions of accountability and authorship rose to the forefront, spurred Perspectives Fund Senior Fellow Sonya Childress to reach out to Aufderheide as well as Molly Murphy and Natalie Bullock-Brown from Working Films, Sherry Simpson from ITVS, and Bhawin Suchak from Youth FX/Next Doc to form the Values, Ethics & Accountability working group. Childress and Bullock-Brown went on to co-author “The Documentary Future: A Call for Accountability,”  which IDA published online and in the Fall 2020 issue of Documentary magazine.

The group assembled for the Getting Real ‘20 session “Do the Right Thing: Leaning Into Ethics and Accountability.” As Childress explained at the beginning of the session, when the working group formed after the 2020 Sundance Film Festival, they observed that, in response to the aforementioned incidents, “Tools and resources were needed; there were forces that were guiding filmmakers' work that were compounding problems of accountability and representation: Market pressures on filmmakers, structural racism, a cognitive dissonance in this ‘Golden Age...We needed to come up with a baseline of expectations across the field. A field-wide sense of ethics is varied and is often challenged by gatekeepers and powerful protagonists. The aim is to coalesce around values so we have more power as a community to hold others accountable, so that filmmakers and protagonists have power and agency.”

Power Over vs Power Within

In assessing what that power looks like now, the group broke it down into two different manifestations: 1) “Power Over,” in which the power dynamic favors the filmmaker over the community they’re documenting, leading to misrepresenting voices and stories in an oversimplified manner that diminishes the sociocultural nuances within that community and not taking into the larger systems at play; and 2) “Power Within,” where filmmakers establish a more collaborative dynamic that necessitates constant examination. 

Natalie Bullock Brown and Molly Murphy discussed how Working Films emphasized building power from the ground up as a countervailing force against the harmful impact that extractive filmmaking can levy against a community. 

Sherry Simpson related her experience in making Amandla!, the 2002 documentary (directed by Lee Hirsch) about how music fueled the Anti-Apartheid movement. When she went to South Africa as an American, South Africans questioned who she was and what her motives were. She spent ten years making the film, which helped in building a solid foundation of trust between her and her collaborators. 

Bhawin Suchak further illuminated the Power Within paradigm: “Have conversations from the outset,” he advised. “Interrogate the dynamic that your presence causes within the community—and acknowledge that you might not be the person to tell that story.” He also advised including a cultural consultant in your budget as a safeguard against harmful filmmaking practices. 

Simpson stressed the importance of acknowledging the complexity of the human experience and avoiding appealing to sensationalism. In her position at ITVS, “Audiences are ambassadors of change; they can walk away with a powerful sense of engagement with what you’re saying in your film.” 

Case Study: Imelda

At that, the session leaders presented two case studies. The first focused on Imelda, Ramona Diaz’s 2004 film about former Philippines First Lady Imelda Marcos. Marcos’ handlers only allowed Diaz’s team 15 minutes with her, and they couldn’t ask about the 1986 People Power revolution. Marcos ended up talking for five hours—and she talked about the revolution. “You always hear from handlers who think they know the needs and wants of their boss,” Diaz noted. “I didn’t want to make a laundry list of her sins,” Diaz explained. “I wanted to unpack what informed her sustained power—what makes people do what they do and what are the factors that inform that.” 

From Ramona Diaz' 2004 film, 'Imelda'

Diaz outlined several factors that informed her process: 1) Transparency—her uncle was opposed to Marcos, while her cousin was in support of her; Diaz, of course, sided with her uncle—and Marcos knew this. 2) Her film is not objective. “it will always be a mediated experience,” Diaz maintained. 3) “Access is ongoing; they’re giving me the story and I’m mediating it,” she said. “The film is the product; they need to trust you. They don’t owe you anything; you have to earn it. The times I don’t film are as important as the times I have the camera.” 

Case Study: Always in Season

The second case study involved Jacqueline Olive’s film Always in Season, which explores the history of lynching of African Americans, and focuses on a specific case from 2014 of Lennon Lacy, a Black teen who was found hanging from a swingset near his home in rural North Carolina. Olive approached Lacy’s mother, Claudia, about participating in the film. “It was important not to cause any more harm,” Olive stressed. “We wanted to be sure she was OK.” Olive’s background as a journalist informed her ethical choices: She filmed Claudia only in her house, and she was the first person to be filmed for the documentary. 

Olive questioned the notion of “humanizing the people we’re filming with. They’re already human, moving through their lives in all their complexities. How are we advancing that? It puts the onus on us to expose the levels of humanity that are already there.”

An Ethical Framework: Considerations

Responding to a question from the audience about how ethical frameworks relate to overlapping fields, Aufderheide noted that “a journalistic code of ethics is designed for daily reporting. The specifics don’t quite fit for documentary, but the values do. Journalists are often very focused on getting the material to the public; they’re not as concerned about representing systemic issues as documentary makers are.” She also maintained that documentary makers and journalists need to acknowledge that media is a constructed product and their work needs to be true to human complexity. 

Bullock Brown weighed in about balance, stressing that filmmakers need to be clear that they don’t have all the answers, and that balances need to be considered differently. “It’s much deeper than ‘both sides,’” she said. 

“Bring intellectual rigor around accountability,” Childress said. “We need to be interrogating our product.” Along those lines, audience members shared in the Chat concerns about imposing character-driven, three-act structure tropes from the narrative context on real lives and how such an approach can throttle the power dynamics and cross ethical lines. “It's not that ‘character-driven’ needs to go,” one participant explained. “It's just that all the other ways of structuring representations need to be seen and valued equally. ‘Character-driven’ can't cover all the ways to represent a story, a community, an issue, etc.” Another participant noted, “The character-driven, three-act structure can sometimes create harm when forcing a ‘turning point’ and ‘conclusion’ to real lives, especially when the interpretation is forced in the edit.”

Childress brought this rich, provocative session to a close, reiterating, ”We have to be aware of how power moves in the field”

Tom White is editor of Documentary magazine.