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Viewpoint: Ethics and the documentary, beyond “Roadrunner”

The brouhaha over Morgan Neville’s choice to use AI-generated audio in his portrait of Anthony Bourdain, Roadrunner, has brought a welcome opportunity to raise ethical questions about documentary more generally. We ...
August 11, 2021

The brouhaha over Morgan Neville’s choice to use AI-generated audio in his portrait of Anthony Bourdain, Roadrunner, has brought a welcome opportunity to raise ethical questions about documentary more generally.

We know that Neville created an AI-fed fake voiceover of Bourdain’s voice, and that in the ending sequence, the director had had a mural created so that Bourdain’s old friend could performatively trash it.

Shouldn’t he have disclosed those choices to us? Filmmakers interviewed for an extensive study we did at the Center for Media & Social Impact back in 2009 would have emphatically said “Yes.” They thought transparency was part of the basic toolkit of good-faith documentary — even though their daily experience in commercial filmmaking belied it. Too often, they worked for companies that encouraged, mandated or strategically looked the other way about fakery.

Ethical dust storms arise intermittently in documentary, but they are routinely treated as accidental weather events. I’d argue that we should see those dust storms as an occasional indication of much more systemic and deeper creative climate issues.

Defining documentary

Ethical questions about individual films and filmmakers float unanchored for two reasons: a lack of clarity about the definition of documentary film, and the lack of any articulated ethical standards in the field.

First, the definition: Documentary might be a capacious and even baggy category, but it’s always differentiated from other film types by its relationship to reality. To call something a documentary is to make a claim that it is a good-faith effort to describe something that really happened in a way that also shows why it is meaningful to a viewer. When it’s not making a claim to represent reality, it’s in a different category.

Since the Neville controversy began, film critics have written pieces taking the argument out of the specifics, by ponderously noting that films are aesthetic creations and constructed media — representations, not reality. And of course they are. Duh. But so is all media. So is all expression since the dawn of time.

More relevant to documentary, the entire world of non-fiction expression is also a constructed representation. Journalism. Non-fiction podcasts. Biographies — in fact, non-fiction books in general. So no, you don’t get a pass to misrepresent or fake something because you’re making art. Not if you’re claiming to represent reality.

Since you can’t make a documentary without drawing from an expansive toolkit of representational options, the ethical questions come in when your choices are seen to betray that mission to represent in good faith something that really happened. The question of whether your storytelling is “extractive” — that is, exploitative of the people in the film for voyeuristic entertainment — also resonate with the question of your good faith in this process.

What we heard from filmmakers in our study, Honest Truths, was that they wanted (in a world that permitted them) to be able to end up with a film where:

  • The people in the film could see themselves as fairly represented (not necessarily in the way they saw themselves or would like to be represented, just fairly);
  • Viewers would not feel betrayed or lied to if they found out your representational choices;
  • You could sleep with yourself at night, and answer to your backers, knowing what choices you had made.

Getting there isn’t hard in principle either, although it may involve more expenses than some companies want to pay for. Transparency goes a long way, for instance when Alex Gibney spends a moment to show us the actress playing the prostitute in Client 9. So does involving the people in the film, where appropriate, in the process. And so does observing some basic accuracy techniques, such as research and fact-checking.

Ethics codes

But now we come to the second reason why we have these ethics dust storms, followed by inaction until the next one: Documentary filmmakers have steadfastly refused to act, as a professional community, to establish any ethical guidelines for their field.

Ethical codes can create problems for filmmakers, true. Journalistic ethics codes are used by plaintiffs in libel suits. Codes can limit some cost-saving, where fakery substitutes for the claimed representation.

But ethical codes also set some parameters for a form that is anchored in reality. A form that’s typically defined by a representational relationship with reality needs some kind of rules of the road. That’s because representation isn’t the same as reality.

Journalists and non-fiction publishers have spent a long time grappling with these issues, because their credibility rests on it and because libel is real. Nothing stops documentarians from at least taking a look at some of their approaches. Websites like the Society for Professional Journalists’ ethics code do not have cooties.

But ultimately, documentarians need to recognize themselves as a creative community, and one with a problem. The distinctive claim of documentary is to a good-faith, honest representation of reality. That is what drives public trust and engagement with the form. That’s the appeal.

But if commerce-driven production muddies the difference between documentary, reality TV, docudrama and fiction, leveraging that trust for short-term gain, then ultimately there goes the category. And the public trust with it. Cynicism spreads its suffocating blanket over documentary, too.

And individual filmmakers have no ability, by themselves, to bring ethical standards to the job. By themselves, they’re hostages to the marketplace. Joining with other creative professionals, they become a body that can provide guidance on how to behave responsibly, as a professional should.

There are hopeful signs. Various subgroups, such as the Documentary Producers Association, the disability-rights organization FWD-Doc, and the Documentary Accountability Working Group (which I’m a part of), are all shaping public ethics or values statements. The International Documentary Association has ethics as one of the issues it’s tracking. These efforts all need to spur better, deeper conversations in the field, working toward shared values and common expectations of practice.

This latest dust storm can be a wakeup call that it’s time to stop pointing fingers, and to start taking seriously documentary’s promise.

Photo: CNN/Focus Features


aufderheide photo snapshot by jean tsien

Patricia Aufderheide (left) is University Professor in the School of Communication at American University and author of, among other books, Documentary Film: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford U Press).


Editor’s note: In Morgan Neville’s statement on the use of A.I. in Roadrunner, first published in The New Yorker and provided to Realscreen, the director said he discussed using the technology from his first meetings with Kim Witherspoon, Bourdain’s longtime agent and representative for the Estate, Ottavia Busia, his ex-wife and all stakeholders. The technology used was 45 seconds of footage that pulls directly from Bourdain’s own words, found from written documents and sources.  “Nobody ever raised an objection,” Neville said. “In fact it was part of my initial pitch of having Tony narrate the film posthumously a’la Sunset Boulevard — one of Tony’s favorite films and one he had even reenacted himself on Cook’s Tour.  Kim Witherspoon told me that she didn’t think Tony would care. His brother Chris told me that he thought it was clever.”  On July 17, Busia tweeted, “I certainly was not the one who said Tony would have been cool with that.” New Yorker reporter Helen Rosner wrote in “The Ethics of a Deepfake Anthony Bourdain Voice” that, in an email to Rosner, Busia recalled the idea of AI coming up in an initial conversation with Neville, but beyond that conversation, she was not involved. “I didn’t mean to imply that Ottavia thought Tony would’ve liked it. All I know is that nobody ever expressed any reservations to me in using AI in making the film,” Neville said in his statement. “In the end I understood this technique was boundary pushing. But isn’t that Bourdain?”

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