Selfless filmmaking. True or false?

By Harry van Versendaal

“Never let facts get in the way of a good story,” the journalistic adage goes. Documentary filmmakers these days seem more and more tempted to adopt the old newspaper truism. The need for access, financial resources and audience appeal is pulling doc-makers away from the traditional ethical principles of accuracy and non-involvement. Wilma de Jong, an award-winning director, producer and author from the Netherlands, chaired a discussion on ethical issues in the digital age, organized by the 12th Thessaloniki Documentary Festival. De Jong, a lecturer in Media and Cultural Studies at the University of Sussex, spoke to Athens Plus about the ethical challenges facing the craft.

A 2009 report from the Center for Social Media at American University (“Honest Truths: Documentary Filmmakers on Ethical Challenges in Their Work”) found that documentarians did not hesitate to manipulate “individual facts, sequences and meanings of images” if that served to convey the film’s “higher truth.” Was that news for you? If so, how bad was the news?

No, it is not news. There have been cases both in the UK (Marc de Beaufort) and the US (Michael Moore) where manipulation of sequences has taken place or chronology of events has been altered for the sake of narrative or message. It is highly problematic, as these incidents undermine the documentary’s privileged position in the public sphere and its aim to reveal or unravel hidden stories or to tell stories about unknown corners of our world. This is beyond providing a different point of view or an original angle. Historically speaking, it is not new but these incidents seem to have become more prominent. The highly commercial and competitive environment in which documentary filmmakers are operating has led to films and a culture in which the spectacular possesses higher value than truthfulness.

Basically, the competition for audiences and subsequent income from advertising distorts civic, democratic values — not always intentionally but being part of that kind of environment makes it sometimes difficult to reflect on your choices or even having the time to reflect at all.

Just how much interaction and intervention is acceptable in documentaries? Should a filmmaker remain completely detached from his or her subject?

This question seems to suggest that the “real” documentary is an observational “fly on the wall” documentary. Observational documentaries have their own strengths and weaknesses. The direct access and liveliness of these documentaries give the impression of realities being represented as unaltered. Actually subject choice, no context and selecting sequences with high emotional intensity means that a “spectacular” reality is being presented. A filmmaker cannot detach him or herself from the subjects or the realities he or she is filming. You, as filmmaker, are part of that situation. There is no such thing as an autonomous reality which can be filmed “objectively.” The camera and the presence of the filmmaker will always affect the pro-filmic scene, the situation that is being filmed, but truthfulness to your subjects is and will always be essential.

Should the line be drawn at life-or-death situations?

I would think so.

Labelling a film as documentary involves standards of “objectivity” and “truth.” Can a documentary be more than a mediated view of the world? Shouldn’t we expect documentarians to be honest rather than “objective”?

Objectivity is a myth. A documentary is a negotiation between filmmaker and its subjects and is always a representation, revealing a specific point of view of filmed realities.

Documentary filmmakers explore the space between “story” and “fact.” A “story” may have a fictional connotation but a documentary needs a storyline, a narrative as a way of linking events in the historical world. Facts are meaningless without a storyline, narrative. We see more strongly authored films at the moment, which can be seen as a departure from “objectivity” and an open admission that a documentary is a specific analysis and representation of certain realities.

What are the most common violations of the ethical code by documentarians?

There is not really an official code – just a set of principles which are inspired by journalist principles. Most common violations are altering the chronology of events without making this clear in the film; using archive footage out of context or suggesting implicitly that the footage was shot somewhere else; misrepresentation of certain groups in society.

Can you tell us of an ethical dilemma you’ve had to face as a filmmaker?

Paying a subject for an interview. It happened quite some time ago. He was a drug addict and I wanted his story. Later I regretted it and thought that I should have made clear in the film that I had paid the interviewee.

Most documentaries now depend on television networks for funding and distribution. Some filmmakers complain of having to customize their work to meet the commercial-driven demands of broadcasters. What are the implications of this on documentary films?

The narration is often used to explain what can be seen but it makes the film accessible to big audiences, broadcasters argue. But are audiences really that media illiterate? Commercial breaks in the film often leads to requests for a repeat introduction of the film after the break has finished, which is very frustrating.

Stories need to be told in a very traditional way. A kind of Hollywood-style narrative that forces the story in a certain direction excludes possibly interesting information as it does not fit the “hero-wants-something-but-meets-obstacles-overcomes-obstacles-or-not-and-is-forever-happy-or-not” kind of story telling.

The rise of docudramas has come with a whole new bag of ethical questions. Do you consider them a legitimate format within the documentary genre or something clearly outside it?

Yes, why not? Documentaries’ role in the public sphere is provoking debate and unravelling or unearthing hidden stories. If you don’t have access to those events or the events happened in the past, docudrama might be a good way to bring a story in the public domain.

Digital lies

You are giving a speech on documentary ethics in the digital age at the Thessaloniki Documentary Festival. What is it that differentiates the digital era from the analogue one from an ethical perspective? In what ways has the change of the medium affected the ethical quality of the message?

Computer-generated images and digital manipulation of shots can lead to created sequences being presented as filmed sequences, as having an indexical link with events taken place in the outside world.

Re-enactment on the other hand, has a long tradition in documentary filmmaking, when a filmmaker has no access to an event or wants to incorporate past events in a film. This is not a problem, as long as it is being presented as a re-enactment. I’m afraid the ethical dimension of a film is the responsibility of the filmmaker — but that is of course not new, but in different historical periods and political/cultural contexts, the nature of the ethical dilemmas is different. Ethics is not a static concept.

Except for some technological tricks that were not available to the documentary filmmaker in analogue times, I don’t think that technology is the real issue. It’s a cultural and political problem.

Video-sharing websites like YouTube and vimeo have revolutionized the documenting and self-documenting capability of individuals. One has the power to reach a remarkably huge audience at zero cost. What has the effect been on the documentary genre?

These new developments have undermined institutionalized views of the world and provide a plethora of experiences and ideas. I would consider it liberating that independent documentary filmmakers can find new audiences outside commercially driven and bureaucratic institutions – but at the same time the spectacular, the voyeuristic elements have become more prevalent.

New developments tend to offer positive and negative effects. The emphasis on individual experiences and often exhibitionist footage is at the expense of critical analysis and creative films analyzing our world or offering creative answers and ideas. We need inspiration, new ideas and original analysis and original documentary forms of our world, not stereotyped and predictable films.

One of the present problems for contemporary documentary filmmakers is to make a living. Broadcasters prefer documentary entertainment and formatted series, which require not only a production context of a bigger company but also a choice of subjects that will provide entertainment, the bizarre or the spectacular.

PROFILE
Wilma de Jong is a lecturer in Media and Cultural Studies at the University of Sussex. She has been an independent filmmaker for 13 years and produced award-winning films on social and political issues. She also co-authored “Global Activism, Global Media,” along with Martin Shaw and Neil Stammers.

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