A couple weeks ago I ran across a New York Times article entitled At Toronto Film Festival, Caution on Documentaries which addressed the issue of ethical challenges for documentarian's work. The article began with reference to Michael Moore's new film, Capitalism: A Love Story, which showed at the Toronto International Film Festival. About the same time the Center for Social Media at American University released a new report, entitled Honest Truths: Documentary Filmmakers on Ethical Challenges in Their Work. This report was a collection of anonymous interviews with documentary filmmakers and took a look at how these filmmakers perceive and deal with ethical challenges in their profession.
The New York Times article mentions the report and that a TIFF panel discussion "...had a message for those who look to documentary films for guidance about matters as serious as business, politics and the meaning of life: let the viewer beware." No doubt. I'm going to see Michael Moore's new movie, but he is a good example of a filmmaker that combines entertainment and politics and he's good at it. His films are informative and entertaining. But can a documentary film be all these things while remaining truthful? I'm not picking on Michael Moore here. I would think all documentarians face these questions. That's why this research was done, right?
As the Center for Social Media states in their document, "When documentary filmmakers do have to make their own ethical decisions, how do they reason? What are their concerns? How much do their own reasoning processes correlate with existing journalism codes? As documentary production becomes more generalized, and as public affairs become ever more participatory, the question of what ethical norms exist and can be shared is increasingly important. This study explores those questions."
These are obviously interesting, important and debatable issues to explore and in my limited time in the industry I have come across various scenarios that have felt questionable, not in a blatant way, but subtle forms of compromise. It begs the long standing question, what is the line between documentary and narrative (or fiction)? Editing alone is a form of manipulation. Does that mean if you edit your film, you must question your professional ethics with each cut? What about if you have technical difficulties when filming someone leaving a room? If you ask them to leave the room again, is that okay, or do you live without that shot since it's no longer organic? These questions might appear trite but there are of course deeper questions. For example, what should a filmmaker's relationship with their subject be? What kind of boundaries does one draw and can one cross? Does every detail need to be a concrete fact or can a filmmaker's "higher truth" win out over the smaller ones?
The executive summary in the report states, "This baseline research is necessary to begin any inquiry into ethical standards because the field has no yet articulated ethical standards specific to documentary." The findings are an interesting (and in some cases pretty surprising) and timely read, as it seems everyone is a filmmaker today. I have to wonder if most ask themselves ethics questions along the way.