Docs

Ethically speaking…

This year, the Toronto International Film Festival introduced a day-long Doc Conference to the program. It wasn't a glitzy affair: the sessions were held in a university classroom, with attendees planting themselves at wooden school desks for the duration. One panel, in particular, ventured into some edgy territory and actually provoked debate. And that was a panel concerning ethics in doc-making.
September 1, 2009

This year, the Toronto International Film Festival introduced a day-long Doc Conference to the program. It wasn’t a glitzy affair: the sessions were held in a university classroom, with attendees planting themselves at wooden school desks for the duration. Mine had some sort of peculiar birdlike figure carved into it, and I resisted the urge to scratch the Iron Maiden logo onto the wood’s chipped veneer.

But while we may not have walked away with gift bags, those who did attend came away with plenty of food for thought stemming from a range of hot-button topics, such as finding financing in a downturn world, alternative modes of distribution for docs, et cetera. One panel, in particular, ventured into some edgy territory and actually provoked debate. And that was a panel concerning ethics in doc-making.

The panel, featuring doc directors including Geoffrey Smith (The English Surgeon) and Michael Tucker (How to Fold a Flag) was moderated by Pat Aufderheide, director of the Center for Social Media at American University. Indeed, the catalyst for having the session came from a brand new report recently issued by the Center, named ‘Honest Truths: Documentary Filmmakers on Ethical Challenges in their Work.’ The result of scores of candid interviews with doc makers, with some choosing to remain anonymous, the report illustrates some interesting, if troubling, truths of its own.

‘[Filmmakers] think that having a good faith relationship with their subjects and with their viewers is a core part of their self-definition,’ Aufderheide told me the day after the panel. ‘But the problem, frankly, is that there’s no place for the community to refer back to when people have to make difficult decisions. They’re really left out on their own.’ As the report states, some filmmakers are bound by contract to not discuss aspects and issues of filming, while others believe talking openly about ethical concerns could cost them work.

As a result, some interesting choices can be made when left adrift in an ethical quagmire. Pressures arising from tight budgets lead to cut corners which, while they may save money, may also misrepresent the facts. Filmmakers also cited pressure to enhance or even create dramatic situations where none existed. Other examples cited in the report paint the picture of a slippery slope, with what could be considered mild transgressions on one end, and much more troubling quandaries on the other.

The report also points out that as most doc makers may be tempted to arrive at those conclusions due to budgetary issues and concerns from the broadcasters, still others will defend playing with ‘the truth’ for the sake of the film’s ‘higher truth.’

There are no easy answers. Aufderheide admits as much. But it’s a topic that demands attention. Interestingly, it’s addressed elsewhere in this issue, in an essay by American University professor Chris Palmer and colleague/filmmaker Suzanne Taylor.

Aufderheide says assorted doc-specific online forums have taken on the discussion, and indeed, it’s one that I hope realscreen can explore further. ‘When we did this research we found that the conversation about people’s ethical norms is very underdeveloped,’ she said. Here’s hoping that ‘Honest Truths’ will inspire much more conversation, for the sakes of filmmakers and their audiences. Be sure to visit www.centerforsocialmedia.org for more information.

Cheers,

Barry Walsh

Editor

About The Author
Meagan Kashty is an associate editor of realscreen, an international print and online magazine that covers the non-fiction film and television industries. Meagan is an award-winning business journalist. Prior to joining the realscreen team, Meagan was online editor of Canadian Grocer, named Magazine of the Year at the 2015 Canadian Business Media Awards. She can be reached at mkashty@brunico.com, and you can follow her on Twitter @MegKashty

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