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A Reflection on Documentary Ethics

July 4, 2010

Unlike major academic ventures, there are no review boards for independent documentary projects, and even less pre-existing structures for collaborative, more flexible endeavors. This has been a source of excitement and nervousness for Katy and me as we prepare to launch into production, which is looking to be the end of next week. Fortunately, we have had a lot of guidance from various professors, mentors, and literature by other documentarians concerning how to maintain the integrity of one’s film and especially one’s community partners.

In some ways, it feels like I have been pushed continually backward along the road of planning for the documentary, with each new experience or lesson forcing me to question even greater fundamentals of the project. Why do this documentary? Why document at all? How does one navigate the interactions of a pair of inexperienced media makers, a series of cameras, and a community, in such a way that maintains respect within the process and meaningful honesty in the eventual results? A few quotes in particular from our readings have struck a chord with me:

“They [good documentaries] have shown us aspects of our world that at other times would have been obscured from view: in this, there is a gain. In the gain, there is a loss.”

“Ultimately, we are all outsiders to the lives of others. We can take our gear and go home. They have to continue their lives where they are.”

–Calvin Pryluck

As the project progresses, I become more and more firmly convinced that our highest priority in this film is not only to respect but to positively engage and hopefully positively impact the community members that we work with. The very basic dynamic of making films, of taking images, means that this type of work is inherently tipped in the filmmaker’s favor, from the very beginning (you can even just refer to the verbs involved: taking, capturing, shooting). The framing, the filming, and the editing often fall to the filmmaker, whereas most of the repercussions fall to the folks in front of the camera. We recognize this imbalance, and consider it something to be corrected for as much as possible and confronted with honesty and compassion, as opposed to taken for granted as acceptable.

The topic of our project is to examine the ways in which communities that are facing mounting challenges of poverty, lack of access to resources, and a complex host of social injustices nevertheless are creatively building a life of dignity for themselves and a better future for their children; we cannot work on a collaborative project concerning this subject matter if our work in turn does not hold as its highest priority the goal to be helpful and relevant – not harmful – to our community partners. How can we ask them to share their efforts to improve their lives and the world around them, if our work ends up crippling their endeavors?

This kind of approach tends to appear in tension with the core of documentary: Telling the truth. In common speech, we understand truth as “objective” or impartial, and thus it seems counter-intuitive to be unwilling to compromise the people in the film when clearly, their true lives are hardly going to be entirely positive or easy to represent. By extension, it seems to be in tension with the additional ethical responsibility to the audience members, who are seeking a complete truth in the film.

Fundamentally, I am convinced that any re-presentation of the world cannot possibly reflect this kind of objectivity: autobiographies, news stories, portraits, history books, and documentary films will never be able to be “complete” in the sense of capturing every detail, every part of the context, every piece of relevant background information. This is a result of the limits of representation, and the simple reality that the people crafting those representations are not without partiality or opinion. When one must choose what to include of the details, the context, or the background information, she necessarily has to make a judgment call about which ones are most relevant, most representative of the whole, and most important. It will be different every time a different person approaches the task.

Documentaries as records of the true or real world, then, rest more on the value of being honest. Honest with our representations to the audience (telling the experience as truthfully as we can, and being up front about the purpose and perspective of the film); honest with our community partners about the project, the risks, and the hopes; and honest with ourselves about our biases so that we can embrace them and be able to evaluate their influence in the project with greater clarity.

Does this critique of objectivity mean that anything goes? Certainly not. Revealing truths and those parts of the world “that would be obscured” is still the impetus behind documentaries, and that which separates them from fiction films and “docudramas” or, my personal favorite of a made-up word, “docuganda.” I don’t think that the whole truth can be captured in representation, but one can seek it; not single-mindedly, nor at the expense of the human lives involved in the documentation process, but yes, strive for it.

Saul Alinsky said it well when he was writing to those who seek a better world through social change: One never reaches the horizon; it is always just beyond, ever beckoning onward; it is the pursuit of life itself. This is the world as it is. This is where you start.


On that note, some other thought-provoking readings:

“… the pioneers of documentary made no pretense of using a journalistic approach in their films and would have found any discussions of journalistic “objectivity” totally irrelevant. They unashamedly used the documentary to make as powerful a statement as they could manage about something they considered important. And this continues among contemporary documentarians who take up a specific social or political point of view. They are not objective; they are advocates. But so long as their work is truthful (the whole truth) and honestly documents their position, they remain documentarians.” – Barry Hampe

“My work had been built up along with them [the subjects of the film]. I could not have done anything without them. In the end, it is all a question of human relationships.” – Robert Flaherty

“The hustlers among us will make increasingly bizarre films for the sake of controversy. In the whirlwind, the more thoughtful and profound films will be lost.” – Calvin Pryluck

2 Comments leave one →
  1. Crystal Wakoa permalink
    July 12, 2010 11:58 pm

    This is a deeply thoughtful, thought-provoking, beautifully written essay Marley. I loved reading it. It completely reflects your values and intelligence. Thanks for sharing it with us. xo, crystal


  1. Final Reflection & Plans for the Project « Notes from the Margins

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