The ethics of docmaking, discussed through the NFB’s meta-doc

This week, the National Film Board's doc on docmaking, Capturing Reality received two packed screenings at the NFB headquarters in Toronto. The first night, director Pepita Ferrari, producer Michelle Van Beusekom and doc directors Jennifer Baichwal and Velcrow Ripper were on hand to speak further about the art (and ethics) of docmaking.
June 11, 2009

Pepita Ferrari’s doc Capturing Reality is the ultimate meta-doc. The film uses interviews with 33 documentary filmmakers and clips from their films to discuss the concept of non-fiction filmmaking and the conflicting ‘rules’ that each director lives and works by.

One of the most conflicting sequences in the film concerned the ethics of documentary filmmaking and how much of a film can be scripted or pre-planned. For instance, in a segment about interviewing subjects, Nick Broomfield (pictured) says that he sees a habit has formed with directors who come into subjects’ homes or workspaces and move around their furniture and light the space a certain way to get the optimum effect. While he thinks this is destroying their environment and essentially losing the truth in the situation, Errol Morris admits he’s done it and he stands behind it.

Likewise, director Barry Stevens uses Werner Herzog’s Little Dieter Needs to Fly as an example of fudging the truth. He says that Herzog asked his subject, a man who had been in the Navy, to open and close his front door a number of times to illustrate his need to feel like he’s not locked in. While Stevens says it made a strong image in the film, he also feels it wasn’t true. While some people might say ‘don’t let the facts get in the way of a good story,’ Stevens believes that when it comes to documentaries, you absolutely should let them get in the way.

During a Q&A at a Toronto showing, doc director Jennifer Baichwal advised the audience not to let anyone tell them that there is a right and a wrong way to make a documentary. However, she feels that audiences will lose their faith in a doc and a filmmaker if re-enactments or fabrications are misrepresented.

Ferrari, who began work on this film in early 2007, says that making it was like doing her MA in documentary. A doc veteran of over 15 years, Ferrari tried to keep an open mind while interviewing the many subjects of her doc, which included Albert Maysles, Kim Longinotto, Molly Dineen, Nettie Wild, Peter Wintonick and Paul Cowan. She didn’t want to take anyone’s side on the many aspects of documentary filmmaking investigated throughout the doc, which, in addition to ethics, included editing, sound, music, interviews, camera work and narration.

After spending so much time thinking and talking about docs, Ferrari says she thinks the future for documentaries is looking good. ‘It’s blown wide open more than before,’ she says. However she still feels that there hasn’t been a change in the quality versus quantity of the docs that are made. ‘Jennifer Fox said to me, ‘There are more documentaries out there, but there aren’t more great documentaries out there.”

The Capturing Reality website features four hours of bonus material that didn’t appear in the film.

About The Author
Jillian Morgan is a special reports editor at realscreen with a background in journalism and digital marketing. She joined the publication in 2019 after serving as the assistant editor to trade publications HPAC and On-Site. With a bachelor of journalism from the University of King's College in Halifax, she also works as a freelance writer and fact-checker.