Doc/Fest ’15: Navigating “dangerous storytelling”

Dreamcatcher director Kim Longinotto, Virunga filmmaker Orlando von Einsiedel and journalist Juliana Ruhfus discussed the safety of subjects in documentary filmmaking at a Sheffield Doc/Fest panel.
June 10, 2015

If one of the subjects in your documentary is a drug addict, how do you obtain not only consent, but informed consent? What safety protocols do you put in place over two years of undercover filming? And what measures do you take when your film is released?

These were just some of the questions raised during “Dangerous Storyelling,” a Sheffield Doc/Fest panel on Tuesday (June 9) expertly moderated by BritDoc Foundation director Beadie Finzi and curated and produced by Frontline Club documentary curator Julianne Rooney.

The session saw Dreamcatcher filmmaker Kim Longinotto and Virunga director Orlando von Einsiedel join Al Jazeera journalist Juliana Ruhfus in discussing the safety of subjects and the ethics around documentary filmmaking, ultimately pointing to a need for more hostile environment and trauma training among young filmmakers.

Kicking off the session was Longinotto, who discussed her latest doc, Dreamcatcher, which follows a Chicago-based counselor who interacts with drug addicts, at-risk youth and incarcerated sex workers. The film presents an intimate examination of women’s lives, and Longinotto is present during difficult and troubling confrontations. Discussing the ethics of filming during loaded situations, the director – who has now made more than 18 feature documentaries – said that, often, subjects are eager to share their stories and welcome the experience.

dreamcatcher (f.k.a. the dreamcatchers)

Kim Longinotto’s Dreamcatcher

“In the context of Dreamcatcher, we went into the school when filming and said we’re doing it together and there’s no pressure to do it or not to do it,” said the director. “[I said], ‘I need you far more than you need me but I want you to enjoy it, I want you to like being there’…So it felt very nice and they started talking about things you could tell they hadn’t talked about before.”

Longinotto says she doesn’t show her films to the contributors ahead of release, only having done so once, after making a film in a refuge for runaway girls in Iran. In order to protect the operation of the refuge, the director worked with an administrator from the organization to ensure the content wasn’t going to endanger the refuge. For Dreamcatcher, Longinotto says the first time her subjects saw the film was at a “big public screening” and they received a great deal of support from the audience.

Later, Orlando von Einsiedel discussed his debut feature doc Virunga, which follows Rodrigue Mugaruka, a park ranger in the eastern Congo’s Virunga National Park, as he tries to protect it from civil unrest and an oil and gas company looking to exploit the land’s natural resources. The director said Rodrigue was filming undercover for the project over two years, and was among 10 people secretly filming others.

On the subject of the doc’s safety protocols, Von Einsiedel said that although he had made a number of journalistic investigations before Virunga, he was learning as he went and picked up practices along the way.

“We did things like use disposable mobile phones and SIM cards, and everyone had code names. And that wasn’t just when we were on the phone, but on every single possible communication,” he said, adding that the team communicated using the Tor network – a software that enables anonymous communication online.

“We didn’t have the protection of a broadcaster behind us, so if [someone] was going to come after us, they were going to come after us personally,” he added. “A lot of it felt insignificant because so many people risked their lives to make this film, but I mean it literally can go as far as losing your house and everything you’ll earn for a long, long time.”


Orlando von Einsiedel’s Virunga

At the end of production, the director says he removed both Rodrigue and the film’s other protagonist, journalist Melanie Gouby, from the Congo, and transferred them elsewhere in the continent.

Rounding out the session was Al Jazeera’s Juliana Ruhfus, a senior reporter for the current affairs program ‘People & Power.’ Her undercover investigations include exploring connections between boxing and the mafia in Kyrgyzstan, exposing human rights abuses in the Maldives, reporting on human trafficking in Nigeria, and most recently, exploring Syria’s cyber war.

“I always work with other people who understand the risk,” Ruhfus told the room. “So if I do start a film about cyber conflict and I haven’t got a clue about the technology involved, [I ask] who can I work with and what are the organizations that deal with that, who can introduce me to people?”

Though Al Jazeera doesn’t let Ruhfus – who makes four films a year – play material back to contributors, the journalist says in specific cases she will share clips from the films with individuals who understand the risk, in order to gauge the suitability of the content.

“If in doubt, take it out – I really believe that,” she said. “Be as honest as you can be. Tell people what you can do and what you can’t do.”

When the panel turned to education, all three filmmakers agreed there needs to be more platforms available for experienced filmmakers to share their knowledge with those starting out in the field. A survey of the audience showed that few had ever received training or support around safety issues, though many indicated that they’d like to receive more hostile environment training.

“There are rules and there are standards,” concluded Finzi. “I know sometimes it feels like, ‘What is the best practice? Who can help?’ but there are tools, people to go and see, and conversations to be had. Please do it. Beyond that, do better and bring your best moral self to the subjects and situations.”

About The Author
Barry Walsh is editor-in-chief and content director for Realscreen, and has served as editor of the publication since 2009. With a career in entertainment media that spans two decades, prior to Realscreen, he held the associate editor post for now defunct sister publication Boards, which focused on the advertising and commercial production industries. Before Boards, he served as editor of Canadian Music Network, a weekly music industry trade, and as music editor for As content director, he also oversees the development of content for the brand's market-leading events, the Realscreen Summit and Realscreen West, as well as new content initiatives.