We Must Address Abuse in the Documentary Industry
By Jane Mote
We spend our lives making documentaries or supporting filmmakers to uncover truths. Yet, in our field, there is a startling lack of honesty regarding the very programs that purport to support filmmakers, especially women. The glitzy world of fiction filmmaking has been roiled by public #metoo investigations of high-powered producers, film festival programmers, and influential consultants.
As a frequent consultant for different documentary organizations, I have heard many harrowing stories of filmmakers abused, harassed, and taken advantage of by the very people supposed to be supporting them. A recent tearful exchange shocked me into realizing we can’t simply listen anymore. I have decided to share some victims’ experiences to break this culture of silence.
All the participants in this piece had copy approval on their stories, which were anonymized to protect their identities. Many are not yet ready to openly talk. All the alleged perpetrators still work in the industry.
Once you have read what they have to say, I implore you to join me and others in a debate about how we can safeguard those in our industry. I am joining forces with DAE (Documentary Association of Europe) to create an alliance of organizations who want to work for change and we will have panels at industry events in 2024. You can also write to me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
“We were only able to edit in the evenings.”
Filmmaker A was in her mid-twenties when she received the opportunity to join a lab to develop and edit her first documentary idea. The participants were mainly men, with two male mentors. Many of the women came from conservative traditions. She describes both witnessing and being subject to abuse.
“We were only able to edit in the evenings. One of the women went to an edit suite at 8 p.m. with her male mentor to work on her film. As she was editing, he snuck up on her, kissed her aggressively on her neck, and started to touch her body inappropriately. When he touched her bottom she just ran out of the room. She left the workshop that night.
“She was terrified. This could literally have meant death for her if anyone found out she’d been in a room with a man at this time and if they knew he’d touched her. That mentor had a habit of asking us women to stay on after class and go to cafés so he could help us more. If we didn't go he questioned our commitment.
“One evening the mentor saw me outside and suddenly told me, “I’m leaving my wife and I want to be with you. I told him I wasn’t interested, that it was inappropriate to say such things to me. But I didn’t have the guts to say anything to the authorities. I was scared I would be labeled a ‘troublemaker’ in the film world.
“Shortly after we were in a café with lots of others from the workshop. He took off his shoes and started playing with my feet under the table. I withdrew my feet and pretended nothing had happened. I kept pretending nothing had happened.
“On another car journey, he promised to make me the most famous filmmaker in my country. ‘I will get you places you haven’t dreamed of,’ he told me. I will never forget these things, it shocked me to be in this situation. This time I firmly said no, I was not interested.
“That’s when the revenge started. I was kicked out of the country’s main film body as were other women who’d been abused and bullied. When I later complained to the Director he said, in front of other men, ‘You can’t convince me that you weren’t happy about how everything went on the workshops. Even my 13-year-old daughter knows what’s good for her.
“What do you even reply? It was a slap in the face. The mentor involved was also training kids up to 13 years old. He can say and do what he wants but their response to us is to blacklist us.”
“You end up feeling you can’t trust anyone.”
Filmmaker B’s story also involves abuses of trust. She was at an international documentary industry event where she won a pitch award.
“It was such a big moment for me, and I didn’t know many people. I was approached by a mentor who had been tutoring at my first pitch forum. He was also a producer and suggested that he may be able to bring in some more funding for my project. He offered to treat me to dinner and said he was only there one night, so it had to be then. I really preferred to be with the other filmmakers but felt I couldn't say no.
“We had a meal. Then he wanted to see my latest cut. My laptop was in my hotel room nearby. He’d been a mentor at a well-known event, so I trusted him. It didn’t feel strange yet. When we got there, I got out my notebook to record his feedback. He got beer out of his bag. He kept drinking and started to make no sense. I asked him to leave. He wouldn’t. He stayed another three hours just bullshitting. I asked him again to leave but he said he was too drunk to travel and needed to stay in my room. He crumpled up on my bed, drunk.
“I felt so uncomfortable. In the end I told him to sleep on one side of the bed and I lay as far away as I could on the other side. But he kept edging his way over towards me. Eventually, I sat up and shouted at him. I did not sleep and packed in silence the next morning.
“It was the biggest shock. I didn’t think it would happen in my wildest dreams. Throughout my life, I’ve had the best teachers and I look up to male teachers. You end up feeling you can’t trust anyone.”
A few years later she was propositioned by a drunk 60-something programmer from a film festival who had flown into an industry market she was attending. He offered to support her but then suggested she come to his room. When she turned him down, he blanked her at future events.
“Somewhere I sadly lost my innocence and happy-go-lucky outlook. These incidents were a huge reality check for me. The need to socialize and pressure to fit in can leave first-time filmmakers feeling incredibly vulnerable. No one warned me.”
“I’m convinced my drink was spiked.”
The festival drinking culture led Filmmaker C into a situation that has stopped her from attending any other festivals.
“I was at this big festival for the third year running. After a day of listening to vulnerable, absorbing, and sensitive stories, with everything being about content, suddenly you are in a large group of people with a lot of drinking going on. It’s difficult.
“It’s hard to piece together what happened. I had a drink and talked to someone, then we got into a taxi to another party. I am a very cautious person this is not something I’d do lightly but we’d been talking for 45 minutes, I felt safe.
“I don't remember much of the next party, but I discovered I acted very out of character. At one point I wept, which I never do. Then ended up in bed with someone I didn't know. I would never normally do that, especially as I had my period. The next day he recounted personal things I’d told him that I would never normally share. I am convinced my drink was spiked before l met this guy, probably at the first party.
“I told no one, not even him. In fact, I’ve only spoken about it to three people in 5 years. And, I haven’t been to a festival since—just one woman’s event. At festivals, you feel you must network in the evening. You think people are interested in your work. You’re young, keen, and want to be a part of things. In documentary we assume everyone wants to share stories and is kind-hearted. They’re not.”
We need an industry-wide ethics code
I am a mentor, decision-maker, and industry participant who has been to countless festivals, labs, and events. I know of many other abuses of power that I do not have permission to write about now.
I have rarely been asked to sign a code of conduct. Participants are seldom assured they are in a safe place or encouraged to speak up should they feel compromised.
I believe we must create an industry-wide ethics code and to ensure that no one working in our industry is unsafe. For now, some final words from the women who have spoken to me:
“There is no system in place to air our safety concerns. This harassment is not just sexually motivated it causes a lot of psychological and emotional damage.”
“It’s taken me years to process what happened and I shouldn't feel like I am the only one. It's important we hear more stories and learn from them. Film budgets now cover therapists. That doesn’t exist for most of us filmmakers. Something needs to be done. No one has apologized to me, and men are getting away with so much.”
Right before I hit “send” on this article, I mentioned it to a filmmaker I’d just met. He said, “It happens to gay men too. I was assaulted by the head of a film festival, and he is still in power. It needs to be addressed.”
Together, we can call out the reality of our world and make it safer for everyone.
Jane Mote is the editorial consultant for the Whickers film fund and is a regular mentor, jury member, and moderator at film labs and markets across the world, including Docs by the Sea, DMZ, Tokyo Docs, CCDF, and Dhaka DocLab. She started her career at the BBC, setting up and running BBC London, before holding senior positions at UKTV, Current TV, and BBC Worldwide, before consulting for Discovery and Turner Broadcasting.