Fair Play to Full Disclosure

n the frenzied market environment of MIPTV, it's easy to forget that behind those top-selling titles are people who entrusted a filmmaker with their story. In this report, Geoffrey Pounsett goes behind the dollars to get a sense of whether a film's subjects should have a say in how their story is told
March 1, 2003

Michael Jackson, King of Pop, didn’t see it until the rest of the world did, and he was shocked. Martin Bashir’s film Living With Michael Jackson followed the normally reclusive icon for eight months. Jackson was interviewed extensively about his plastic surgery, his fame, his philosophy on life and his relationships with his own and other children. He provided the interviewer unprecedented access to his life, home, family and friends. But despite his high level of personal involvement and his cooperation with the program, Jackson claims he was ‘devastated and utterly betrayed’ by the finished product.

How did this happen? Was Jackson ambushed by the film? In the interest of fair reporting, should he have been given the opportunity to screen the film first and respond, or is that too dangerous for the filmmaker?

Martin Bashir got the cooperation of his subject, made his film and released it. What do other filmmakers do?


‘We never have, and never will, prescreen a documentary for a subject,’ says Bruce Klein. The president of New York, U.S.-based Atlas Media, which produces non-fiction programs such as Royal Families Around the World and History’s Lost and Found, is firm on the issue. ‘If they don’t like something, they want you to re-edit it so they like it. They become producers.

‘It’s also a pure financial issue,’ he continues, explaining the problem of finding the time and resources to add a prescreening stage to the process of producing a documentary. ‘[Films] aren’t budgeted to be reworked.’

Arnie Gelbart, founder of Montreal, Canada’s Galafilm, agrees: ‘The whole idea is that the journalist/filmmaker is an observer.’ He says Galafilm, producer of such non-fiction TV series as Cirque de Soleil: Fire Within and The Valour and the Horror, would never prescreen a finished doc or show ‘raw stuff’ while editing is in progress. ‘It can create nervousness and a sort of legal jeopardy. You never know how people will react.’

Dan Chambers, controller of factual at U.K. broadcaster Five, has a different take. While conceding, like Klein, that one reason not to prescreen is that it can be ‘enormously’ expensive, he still says, ‘I think people should always see it [before it screens publicly].’

Largely a producer of history and science docs, Chambers feels putting a film’s contributors into a feedback loop can be beneficial for the project. ‘If there are things that might be inaccurate,’ he says, ‘they are encouraged to feed those [corrections] in. If there are ways to improve it, the more people who see it the better.’

Their feedback only goes so far, though. Chambers doesn’t see it directing the editorial content or direction of the doc, concluding that ‘ultimately, it’s going to be the job of the director, producer and commissioning editors to decide what goes in the film.’

Chambers grants that history and science docs might be less threatening to their contributors’ comfort level than investigative work or more personal films. Klein agrees: ‘The vast majority of documentaries produced for the international market and [in the U.S.] are produced for cable channels with a specific mandate and are more softball than hardball.’ Still, even contributors to ‘softball’ docs can be picky about how they come across and want some say in the finished product.

In particular, Klein says, this can be true of celebrity interviews, or people in positions of power or prominence ‘who you want very much to be part of your story, but who want some kind of control.’ And since many of the shows produced by companies such as Atlas and Galafilm would be impossible without celebrity involvement, something has to be worked out.

Last year, Gelbart’s Galafilm completed a 13-part series chronicling the development of talent and the latest show by the Cirque de Soleil. It wasn’t easy to get the behind-the-scenes access the project required. ‘We want to go in, get total access, and whatever comes out, comes out,’ Gelbart says. ‘But, they’re very protective of their brand and we were the first outsiders to have an intimate look at them.’ Galafilm was able to quell the Cirque’s doubts, however. Explains Gelbart, ‘They understood that [release of control] was a price they had to pay to see it done.’

What happens when the doubts aren’t quelled and the subject demands to see the work before it is released? Klein puts it bluntly: ‘We have lost interviews.’

‘The subtext is the issue of approval,’ says Jesse Fawcett, president of Toronto, Canada’s Telefactory. ‘You can’t let your subject have veto rights over the broadcaster who has paid for the show, which would be the de facto effect.’

This doesn’t necessarily apply to feature documentary films that aren’t pre-sold, though.


Feature filmmakers working without a broadcaster on board may have more room to negotiate with subjects, but long-form docs are also often more personal, more revealing, more invasive. How do you handle the issue of trust in that format?

Veteran documentarian Albert Maysles has strong opinions on this subject. Maysles – who, in collaboration with his late brother David, Susan Froemke and others, has made such award-winning films as Lalee’s Kin: The Legacy of Cotton and Grey Gardens – tries to avoid the issue of prescreening altogether by creating a level of trust between himself and the people upon whom a film is focused. The success of this approach is borne out by his experience.

For Lalee’s Kin, Froemke, Deborah Dickson and Maysles followed subjects living in the Mississippi Delta. ‘When we [first] showed the film, the main character, who was a black woman, very poor, was there,’ Maysles explains. ‘You really got to know [her] family with all its problems – we were not shy about showing that. She watched the film and when it ended, she paused for a moment and then said, ‘That’s the truth.”

Maysles believes that a filmmaker can make an honest film while still respecting the concerns of the people who are its focus. ‘It doesn’t stop you from getting at people’s vulnerability,’ he asserts. ‘It’s just that you do it with discretion. People have a need to be recognized, in all their complexity.’


Cara Mertes faces the issue of prescreening on two fronts. As commissioning editor for PBS’s ‘POV’ strand, she places her trust in release forms and doesn’t ‘make a habit’ of prescreening work. However, as a doc-maker, she says, ‘There are certain projects where I very much want people to be involved. It was their goodwill that allowed the piece to be made.’ And if those involved have concerns, she adds, ‘and it’s not going to harm the overall structure, I try to work with those caveats in mind.’

But Mertes has another reason for prescreening: the creative process. ‘I am extremely collaborative in terms of content and structure, and that goes for subjects as well.’

Arthur Dong, a Los Angeles, U.S.-based documentarian, shares Mertes’ point of view. ‘I’m limited. My crew is limited. I may have gaps because of my limitations, so I try to address that,’ he says.’I always prescreen, [but] not always to the people in the film. I try to show it to people who will be affected by the film.’

Dong’s entry in the 2002 Sundance Film Festival, Family Fundamentals, coproduced by his DeepFocus Productions and American Documentary, Inc., is an excellent example. The film looks at three families in which the parents’ deep religious beliefs create a gulf between them and their gay children.

In the film, Dong explains, ‘there’s a particular Mormon story, which is a world I’m not familiar with. I wanted to make sure what I was including was substantive. So, I put together a conservative Mormon audience, a focus audience, and showed it to them, to hear what they had to say – not to find out whether they love it or hate it, but so they could say, ‘Yes. That is true.”

Dong also screened Family Fundamentals for the L.A. Human Rights Commission and a parents’ group in the film, so that ‘if anything came back to them they would know what it was.’

But for Dong, there is an equally important reason to include people involved in the film before its release: ‘Because I was able to reach out to these folks in the process,’ he says, ‘they became part of it. They can see themselves in another role once it is done: outreach.’ Indeed, the scheduled summer broadcast of Family Fundamentals on ‘POV’ is connected to a number of planned outreach screenings, discussions and activities, both in the gay community and in the religious communities depicted in the film.


For some, though, prescreening remains impossible. Wei Chen, senior correspondent for Canadian broadcaster CTV’s investigative news program W-Five, says the nature of her work precludes it. ‘Logistically and philosophically, there’s just no way,’ she explains.

That the program won’t prescreen for the target of its investigation is hardly surprising, but what about the witnesses and experts and even alleged victims interviewed along the way? What if they want to see how they are being portrayed?

‘We do get that request,’ Chen says, ‘but we don’t do that. We did a story on childhood obesity, and one woman wanted to see it first, to make sure she didn’t look bad. That’s difficult. What I think makes you look bad might be different from what you think makes you look bad.’

In the end, once again, it comes down to gaining the trust of the subject. Of course, people aren’t always happy with the final product. Chen concedes W-Five often hears from subjects, including ones who were portrayed sympathetically, who feel they were exploited.

Gelbart, whose Galafilm was a producer on the Canadian World War II doc The Valour and the Horror, says many of the film’s subjects were unhappy after seeing the finished project, which criticizes decisions made by the Canadian military. ‘Some of the veterans were very upset. They spoke honestly, but they would rather not have appeared in something that controversial.’ A group of vets filed a libel lawsuit after the program aired, but the courts concluded there was no case for defamation.

Court cases are rare, though, and for the most part release forms do their job. They can prevent legal action, if not a feeling of betrayal. Even Michael Jackson, who claims the promise that his children would not be included in the documentary was broken, has so far not sued over the film (although he is claiming copyright of the footage). He has had ample opportunity to make his feelings known, though – an opportunity that is not afforded to all documentary subjects equally. Certainly, the King of Pop has an advantage on this front.

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