Balancing the bias

Events in the news have reminded me of the immediacy of the documentary form....
June 1, 2001

Events in the news have reminded me of the immediacy of the documentary form.

With tensions rising in the Middle East, the Israeli parliament has plans to re-direct millions of dollars promised filmmakers to security efforts instead. With people’s lives at stake, you can’t question a decision like that – but in the philosophical world of filmmaking, it’s probably necessary to ask who will be in a position to tell the stories when the money disappears.

In last week’s RealScreen Plus poll, we asked if doc-makers native to a region were best equipped to tell that region’s stories (a question spun from the Working in War-torn or Dangerous Conditions panel at Hot Docs). More than 66% of respondents said natives weren’t the best choice – outsiders were better suited to tell those stories.

I don’t know if I agree with that response, although the fault may lie more in the question asked than in the answer received. I can’t believe residents would be any less capable technologically, so it’s really a question of objectivity and bias. And if that really is the question, I still can’t whole-heartedly side with our poll.

The assumption that outsiders bring objectivity with them is flawed. During the Hot Docs panel, Giuseppe Pettito (producer of Jung (War) in the Land of the Mujaheddin), although apologizing for what he considered his poor grasp of English, hit the nail on the head when he said he felt a little ‘ashamed’ to be filming people in the middle of a war. Filmmakers are no more capable of switching off their emotions than are other humans.

The same holds true for bias. In our ‘View from Here: Israel’ this month, Nir Toib of GN Communications explains how he’s tired of international filmmakers telling the same stories about his region: the Israeli/Palestinian conflict and the Holocaust. It’s what Western television expects, but do those stories truly define the region, or do they just strengthen our preconceptions? Sorius Samura (Cry Freetown) makes the same complaint of non-African coverage of the conflict in Sierra Leone.

As the panel cautioned, doc makers should guard against the temptation to plan their film shot by shot beforehand, and perhaps shouldn’t enter a conflict situation with a locked story idea. I think native filmmakers are probably more predisposed to this, and that’s why I can’t entirely disagree with our poll. Maybe the ideal balance is found in the pairing of internal and external filmmakers.

The last word on the subject goes to Sorius Samura. When asked how he tackled the story in Sierra Leone, his response was a shrug: ‘How do you explain madness?’

In some situations, maybe no doc maker can perfectly fit the bill.

Brendan Christie,


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