Montreal-based filmmaker Garry Beitel, of Beitel/Lazar Productions, wouldn’t consider making a film without the written consent of his subjects. For his most recent film, Endnotes, a one-hour one-off (coproduced in 1999 with the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation) that follows a group of terminally ill patients in a Montreal palliative care unit, Beitel was extra careful. ‘With Endnotes, we wouldn’t film anybody unless they were able to give us permission.’
The film’s crew even obtained releases from people occupying the background of the film. ‘Whenever we were filming in a public place in the hospital,’ he explains, ‘we’d go around and speak to each person and tell them we would be filming there. If they were not comfortable, [we asked if] they could sit on the other side of the room.’ In the end, Beitel got releases from every person who appeared in the film.
While this might sound extreme, for Beitel releases are not just a legal safeguard, they are a moral contract. ‘My working principle is that I wouldn’t want anyone to film me and use my image without asking me if they can,’ he explains. ‘I feel the same about people who might be in my films – everybody has a right to decide if they want to be included in someone else’s film.’
One issue that cropped up during the shooting of Endnotes was that as some patients’ conditions changed, their willingness to be in the film also changed. Beitel says it was important for him to be flexible and to know when to relent. ‘Just because you signed a release today, doesn’t mean that you can’t revoke it,’ he says. ‘I can hold them to something legally binding that they signed a week ago, but I can’t in all moral or ethical conviction continue filming them, or use their material in the film.’
But faced with contractual obligations of his own – with broadcasters and with the demands of the story he’s trying to tell – Beitel generally won’t walk away from an important character without stating his case first. He explains, ‘If you’ve gone too far and you’ve got to deliver something by a certain date, then you have tension between your needs as a filmmaker and their needs as people.’ In Asylum, a 78-minute doc about refugees seeking political asylum in Canada (produced with Canada’s National Film Board, 1999), Beitel faced a number of tricky situations. He recalls: ‘I’d been following a person for a year that I was hoping to follow into his refugee hearing. A week before, he chickened out. He said, ‘I’m afraid I’ll lose the case if you’re there. I don’t want you there.’ I was shocked . . . I couldn’t let him go at that point because he was my story, so I explained that to him. He looked at me incredulously and said ‘Yeah, this is your film, but it’s my life.’ Eventually he did give in – I talked him into it and his lawyer talked him into it. Two years after the film he has no regrets that he participated. But he could have withdrawn and that would have been his right.’
While Beitel stands strong by his moral conviction, he’s well aware of the temptation to film without impunity. ‘Some people in the media feel they have the right to intrude,’ he says. ‘You get your little trophy sometimes that you feel very proud of – they’re like image trophies – but [people in the media] often don’t take into account the impact these images can have on the lives of the people they’re filming.’