Lesson Plan

  • Grades 9-10,
  • Grades 11-12

Honest Truths: Ethics in Documentary Film

Honest Truths: Documentary Filmmaking Ethics

I usually enter people’s lives at a time of crisis. If the tables were turned, God forbid, I would never allow them to make a film about my tragedy. I am keenly aware of the hypocrisy of asking someone for access that I myself would probably not grant.
— Joe Berlinger, documentary filmmaker

When filmmakers tell someone else’s story rather than their own, what responsibilities (if any) do they have to their films’ subjects, the community affected and the audience? What ethics should govern putting someone else on film?

These are among the questions that 45 professional documentary filmmakers and producers tackled as part of a 2009 study by the Center for Media and Social Impact at American University, “Honest Truths: Documentary Filmmakers on Ethical Challenges in Their Work.” Filmmakers identified two kinds of relationships that raised ethical questions: 1) Filmmaker with subject(s) and 2) filmmaker with viewers.

In most cases, documentarians believed strongly in “making informal commitments and employing situational ethics determined on a case-by-case basis,” as illustrated in the following excerpt:

Sharing Decision Making

The awareness of a power differential also leads filmmakers sometimes to volunteer to share decision-making power with some subjects. Notably, this attitude does not extend to celebrities, whom filmmakers found to be aggressive and powerful in controlling their image. This distinction accords with filmmakers’ sensitivity to the power differential in the relationship.

Most subjects signed releases allowing the makers complete editorial control and ownership of the footage for every use early on during the production process. The terms of these releases are usually dictated by insurers, whose insurance is required for most television airing and theatrical distribution. Perhaps because the terms of these releases were not their own, filmmakers often provided more leeway to their subjects than the strict terms provided in them. Filmmakers often felt that subjects had a right to change their minds (although the filmmakers found this deeply unpleasant) or to see the material involving them or even the whole film in advance of public screenings.

The informal basis upon which they operated also reflects the ambivalence they have about ceding control and their wish to preserve their own creative interests. The ongoing effort to strike a balance, and the negotiated nature of the relationship, was registered by Gordon Quinn:

We say to our subjects, “We are not journalists; we are going to spend years with you. Our code of ethics is very different. A journalist wouldn’t show you the footage. We will show the film before it is finished. I want you to sign the release, but we will really listen to you. But ultimately it has to be our decision.” In some cases I will say, “If there is something that you can’t live with then we’ll discuss it, we will have the argument and real dialogue. In the end, if I can’t convince you then we’ll take it out.”

Some also believed that seeing material in advance helped make their subjects more comfortable with the exposure they would encounter, thus avoiding problems in the future. One director recalled, “I knew personal information about one of the [subjects] that I thought would make the film richer, but she was confiding to me in person, not as a filmmaker … We discussed it with her, and then she felt comfortable. We showed her the piece first. Then she was okay.”

However, when filmmakers did not empathize with, understand, or agree with the subject’s concern, or when they believed the subject had more social power than they did, they overrode it. In one case, a subject who had signed a release asked Stanley Nelson not to use an interview. The interview was important for the film, Nelson said, and he believed the request was motivated by desire to control the film. He “wanted us to interview someone else as a precondition [for using his own interview],” Nelson said. “We did talk to that other person on the phone and then decided not to interview them for the film. I felt that my obligation was fulfilled.” In another case, a director decided not to show footage to a subject who wanted approval over material used, because he feared the subject would refuse to permit use. In both these cases, the choices not to honor the subject’s requests reflected the fact that the subjects—both experts, not less-powerful subjects—attempted to exert control over the film’s outcome that differed from that of the filmmakers.

Ultimately, the Center for Media and Social Impact concluded that filmmakers shared three general ethical principles that they attempted to balance in their work:

  1. Honor your (vulnerable) subjects. Protect them from attack and don't leave them worse off than when you met them.
  2. Honor your viewers. Make sure that what they understand to be true and real wouldn't be betrayed if you told them where and how you got that image.
  3. Honor your production partners. Do what you contracted to do, even if you made that bargain with yourself.

Although these principles provide a clarifying framework within which to discuss ethics in documentary filmmaking, they also highlighted the degree to which filmmakers control the process, content and publication of their films and their subjects’ stories.

Thinking more deeply:

In circumstances where filmmakers are working with vulnerable subjects, how can they ensure that the subjects are able to provide informed consent? What other options did the subjects have? Were the subjects able to entrust their stories to this filmmaker because they were the best option (or were they the only option)?

What rights or protections should be provided to subjects who are survivors of violent trauma? Should their stories be handled any differently than those of other subjects? Why or why not?

Should subjects reserve the right to withdraw consent? Under what circumstances?

When children are the subject of a documentary, how can consent be fairly given?

What are the potential benefits and problems with parents or guardians having the authority to give consent on the child’s behalf? What responsibility, if any, does the filmmaker have to the future adult who will live with the decisions made on their behalf when they were young?

Further Reading:

Rogow, Faith. “Media Literacy Questions for Analyzing POV Films.” American Documentary-,
https://www.amdoc.org/engage/resources/media-literacy-questions-analyzing-pov-films/authors-audiences/.

Arthur, Paul. “Art of the Real: Standards & Practices.” Film Comment, March/Apr. 2007,
https://www.filmcomment.com/article/documentary-ethics/.

Aufderheide, Patricia, Peter Jaszi and Mridu Chandra.Honest Truths: Documentary Filmmakers on Ethical Challenges in Their Work.” Center for Media and Social Impact at American University, September 2009,
http://archive.cmsimpact.org/sites/default/files/Honest_Truths_--_Documentary_Filmmakers_on_Ethical_Challenges_in_Their_Work.pdf.

Aufderheide, Patricia. “Honest Truths: Looking at a Groundbreaking Ethics Report, Five Years Later.” Documentary, Apr. 15, 2015,
https://www.documentary.org/feature/honest-truths-looking-groundbreaking-ethics-report-five-years-later.

Dentino, John. “Ethics in the Immersive Documentary,” Senses of Cinema, Dec. 2013.
http://sensesofcinema.com/2013/feature-articles/ethics-in-the-immersive-documentary/

Rogow, Faith. “Lesson Plan: Introducing Documentaries to Your Students.” POV,
http://archive.pov.org/film-files/introducing_documentaries_lp_lesson_plan_0.pdf.

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