“The art of what we do is friendship and betrayal,” said October Films MD Adam Bullmore, quoting an old documentary hand who delivered this maxim to him when he was starting out in the business.
Speaking on Tuesday’s doc-ethics panel “Keeping it Real” at Realscreen Summit 2022 — along with Blue Ant Media CCO Laura Michalchyshyn, Lightbox VP of development Alexis Gomez-Garcia, Plimsoll head of documentaries Richard Klein and moderator Michael Cascio, CEO and president of M&C Media — Bullmore expanded on that stark credo.
“If you’re a really good documentary maker, you’re inevitably going to have to gain the trust of your subjects. And yet if you are going to be true to your journalistic instincts, that will often involve betrayal — which is not so much backstabbing, but rather, if you were sitting on a train and your friend told you something very personal, you don’t tend to then broadcast that to the rest of the world.”
As was evinced by the panel’s ensuing conversation, such fundamental facts about the doc-making process remain perhaps the most pressing ethical questions in the field even today, as shifting media and technological landscapes conspire to throw up ever more temptations to filmmakers’ consciences.
On that first principle of trust, Michalchyshyn (pictured, far right) sees it as being inextricably bound up with the time a filmmaker needs to devote to truly building that relationship with the participant. Citing John Lewis: Good Trouble, the 2020 feature doc about the late U.S. congressman and civil rights leader, Michalchyshyn described how director Dawn Porter spent months with Lewis as he went about his everyday life. It was the confidence she won through that commitment which allowed her to get more from Lewis and capture more of his character than if she had simply helicoptered in for a couple of sit-down interviews, Michalchyshyn said.
As to the darker second component of that trust–betrayal dynamic, Klein (pictured, second from right) volunteered an instance from early in his career where he felt he crossed the line with a participant. While making a movie about the catastrophic 1985 explosion on the Piper Alpha oil rig off the coast of Scotland, which killed 165 workers, Klein said that he had convinced one of the survivors to visit a rig and operate one of the “vertical lifeboats” that could have potentially saved many lives on Piper Alpha had it been equipped with them.
“The next day we went out to put him on this vertical lifeboat, and on the morning of that shoot… he was not in a good way. He did it anyway, but since then I’ve wondered whether sometimes, in our desire to have people re-do, re-tell, talk about their past experiences [for a film], when we persuade them that it would be ‘good for them’ to talk about what happened to them, if that isn’t just bullshit,” Klein said.
While Klein noted that the man did sign a consent form before participating in the project, he questioned whether someone who has experienced such trauma is truly in a position to fully and rationally consent to relive it for the camera.
The panel discussion touched on a number of perennial and more recently emerging issues related to filmmaker responsibility, transparency and conflict of interest. The discussion included how to make a true-crime doc when your subject hasn’t yet been convicted (apropos of Michalchyshyn’s work on Peacock’s Epstein’s Shadow: Ghislaine Maxwell); the increasing prevalence of celebrity-focused docs, in which the spotlighted celeb’s required “buy-in” also comes with implicit (or explicit) limitations as to how much the filmmakers can reveal about them; and in which filmmaking situations it is appropriate to pay one’s participants for their involvement, and how much. (“I have no problem paying people — after all, we’re getting paid,” Klein declared, qualifying that statement by specifying that any fee must be of “common-sense” proportions: “I’m talking three, four, five hundred dollars, max.”)
One of the most interesting lines of discussion came when the focus shifted to technology, and the increasing commercial pressures on doc-makers to employ it.
“In the competitive marketplace, the streamers are always pushing you to be creative and reinvent the wheel,” Lightbox’s Gomez-Garcia (pictured, second from left) said. “So right now it’s AI, and in the next five, 10 years it’s going to be something else. So I think documentary [filmmaking] is going to continue to evolve as tech does.”
Inevitably, the flashpoint of Morgan Neville‘s AI-assisted imitation of Anthony Bourdain’s voice in the doc Roadrunner was raised (a story that the panel’s moderator Cascio weighed in on recently for Realscreen). Sidestepping the specifics of that controversy, Bullmore (pictured, far left) speculated on how the dread spectre of “deepfakery,” if responsibly employed, could be used not to conceal or replace the truth of a story but rather to give life to stories that haven’t been documented in more conventional ways.
“The deepfake potential is in some ways really exciting,” he said.
“For example, the story of Black soldiers in World War II has only partially been told, and filmmakers and commissioners are only just catching up with the diverse story of World War II,” he continued. “But that archive doesn’t exist, because we all forgot to do it, for whatever reason, for the last 50 years. And now, just as everyone’s waking up to the real depths of that story, the people who can tell it are dead.
“But the photos of them are there, and their diaries are there, and their kids are there, and we have the technology that can take a still and bring Sergeant Smith [to life], and he can speak. So we can do it, and there’s a real value in doing it. But [viewers] just need to know that everything you’re having Sergeant Smith say is true — based on his family, his diaries and the photos that exist of him — but this isn’t who he is: this is something we’ve constructed so that his story does get told, finally, after 70 years.”