The Struggle Between Creativity and Ethics
Paper by Katie Seib. Viewed on DVD.
Documentary film is an authentic interpretation of the world that we live in. It utilizes facts from a subject, person, or event of historical reality to inspire the audience of the film’s purpose. However, since documentary film is a creative vision showcasing the historical world, there is a bit of a paradox among truth and fiction. The filmmaker’s goal is to incorporate their voice to these historical events, convincing or informing the audience of the film’s purpose. This requires a balance of ethical responsibilities and creative motives, which can create criticism within the world of documentary film. Each containing strengths and weaknesses within their styles of filming, Land Without Bread, True Life, and Catfish exhibit the ways in which a filmmaker must balance ethical concerns and their own creative vision.
Documentaries represent issues, qualities, people, and other aspects from the historical world. However, everything we see is from the viewpoint of the filmmaker and how he wants to represent that world. This can be a problem with filmmakers, as they want to employ their vision as well as entertain the audience, but must think about the ethical concerns that are involved when making a documentary film. This can interfere with the commercial pressures that a filmmaker may have. These concerns have to do with the relationship among filmmaker to subject and filmmaker to audience.
When a filmmaker is creating a documentary that includes social actors, they must ask themselves how they will treat their subjects. Since the subjects in a documentary are representing themselves rather than a person who is getting paid to play a part in a film, there are many issues that are called into question. A filmmaker will usually attain a release from the subjects that are involved in a film that grants the director all rights to make the film as he wants to, but it still causes issues once a subject sees the final outcome for the film. A filmmaker generally does not give their subjects compensation for their part in a film, which can cause problems among filmmaker and subject if the documentary is commercially successful. They may feel used or misrepresented within the film, which can cause a question of ethics into the criticism of a film. Filmmakers generally want to protect their subjects, but it can be a challenge at times. Their right to put their own voice into a documentary can lessen the authenticity of the film if it is exercised too freely. Subjects are telling their own story in their voice, and too much direction from the filmmaker may change their own views and misrepresent what is said. Since the goal of filmmaker’s in documentary is to incorporate their voice within the historical context, some filmmakers may practice deception in order to make their film more compelling. They may conceal part of the truth to their subjects in order to gain access to something or in order to film a particular scene. This is needed by some films depending on its goal and filmmaker’s voice. It is also possible that even the mere presence of the filmmaker will alter the way that a subject acts, therefore altering the true motives for the film’s purpose. A major issue within the filmmaker to subject relationship is the exploitation of these subjects. For many documentaries that tell the stories and hardships of their subjects, it important for the filmmaker to not misrepresent them as victims and respect what they want to be told on-screen. They do not want to cause any harm to their subjects.
The relationship between the filmmaker to the audience can sometimes interfere with the filmmaker’s ethical considerations for their subject. The main concern between the filmmaker and the audience is that the filmmaker is delivering honestly told stories. Many films receive criticism because the audience is not sure if everything was simply captured on camera or provoked by the filmmaker to make their documentary more exciting for the audience. Since a documentary captures the filmmaker’s voice, it is important that manipulation to the scene does not interfere with the authenticity of the subject. This manipulation can include editing shots and re-staging incidents, but many filmmaker’s justify their manipulation in order to bring their voice into a moment of historical reality. However, depending on one’s definition, manipulation is almost inevitably present within documentary films. Although documentaries are factual, they are not completely objective since the filmmaker chooses the camera angle, music, lighting, and editing that will change the overall voice of the documentary. In many cases, the audience accepts that a documentary is biased.
Land Without Bread, directed by Luis Buñuel, was one of the first film to raise ethical concerns within documentary film, especially between the film and the audience. This film documents the lives of those in Las Hurdes, an impoverished land in Spain. This land is uncultivable and follows the citizens as they try to live their lives as best they can with very little supplies. Buñuel’s voice-over commentary on this film seem to be very unmoved and deliberately withdrawn from the way that these people live. He does not feel sympathy for them, rather speaking in a factual, objective tone. He also makes comments that are more than unsettling, showing the filth of the water and a mule is eaten alive by a swarm of bees. He seems to judge and exaggerate the poverty of these people. However, it is seen through subtle cues that this is not a straightforward documentary, but rather a manipulation of the style in order to speak to the audience. This film mixes actual documentary footage with footage that has been staged, as it is noticeable that a goat does not accidentally fall off of a mountain, but is actually shot down. This is seen through four different angles, which signals to the audience that it is fake. If it was true footage, it would be caught by chance and be seen from only the angle which Buñuel shoots from. This is not the case however, as this style attempts to criticize the style of the documentary film and how the audience views them. This is an interesting and different style of film, but nonetheless has been applauded for its ability to grasp the audiences attention. A director comments on this film, expressing her thinking that the documentary filmmaker should always incorporate a second meaning about ourselves within their work (Godmilow). Land Without Bread requires audiences to take a deeper look into a documentary film and not believe everything that we see or hear, for it can be greatly manipulated.
The True Life series is a documentary-style television show that depicts young people in various situations. Many of them are those that are struggling in hard life situations. The goal of this show is to tell someone’s story in the hopes that it will inspire another person that is in a similar situation. However, this series raises many ethical concerns of documentary film within both the relationship of filmmaker to subject and filmmaker to audience. Filmmakers strive to protect their subjects and minimize harmful effects toward them. However, this can be a dilemma in some instances, such as within True Life: I am Addicted to Crystal Meth. This episode follows several young people who are addicted to crystal meth, and follows them as they struggle with their addiction. Although these people gave the filmmaker’s informed consent, a question of ethics is still present as they show these people using highly illegal drugs which could potentially be used against them. Another ethical concern can be seen through this series as a filmmaker is torn in his human responses during the filming of True Life: I’m Supporting my Family. This episode tells the story of a 21-year-old woman who is struggling to support her siblings after her mother committed suicide. At one point in the film, a friend’s check for one hundred dollars is not taken by the cashier when she is trying to buy groceries, and is forced to put all of the food back. At a later episode that discussed this instance, the filmmaker revealed how he experienced a moral dilemma when deciding whether to give her money so she could buy groceries. It would have been extremely easy for him to just give her the money so she didn’t have to go through that embarrassment of putting the groceries back and not having any food for her family. Instead, he opts to film as the event happens, striving for truth in the film rather than human morals. In all of the True Life episodes, there is a question of truth between the filmmakers and the audience. Since this is a series on MTV, it seems much more likely that these scenes are manipulated by the filmmaker in order to make the show more compelling to audiences. The timing of the show also raises the show’s question of authenticity as it usually tells the story of two individuals in about an hour, therefore leaving out information that could be better told in a longer amount of time. Though this show tries to carry an objective approach, its ethics come into question through these many attributes.
Catfish is a very interesting documentary, both for its content and how it is shot. As Nev Shulman befriends Abby, an eight year old girl that uses Nev’s photographs as her artistic inspiration, his brother and friend start to film this relationship. Nev’s friendship with Abby leads to his friendship with her mom, Angela, and a romantic relationship with Abby’s sister, Megan. Megan and Nev seemed to be falling for each other as they exchanged messages and talked on the phone frequently and maintained an online relationship. However, things soon become questionable as he finds that she had not been truthful about the songs that she had claimed she sang for him. He then travels to Michigan in order to visit her, and things turn out very unexpectedly. They end up finding out that Megan never existed and the woman that was portraying her was actually Abby’s mom, Angela. He also discovers that the child art prodigy whom he believed was Abby was not her but in fact her mother as well. Angela, though deceptive and seemingly desperate, was found to have a very important subject in the film. She was a woman who married a man that had two mentally ill children, which made her life basically revolve around those two kids as well as with her daughter Abby. It is revealed that she made Facebook profiles for seventeen people, showcasing her desperate need for friendship. Through this depiction of her, the ethical concerns between the filmmaker and subject is tested. As Nev finds this information out, he is unsure of how to react. However, he decides to simply talk to her about it, and she reveals her “true” identity (we later learn that she was lying about some aspects of her actual life as well). Though he was nice about it during the filmmaking for the purpose of digging deeper into her identity, the depiction of Angela could be seen as something that she would not want to be revealed to the public, seeing as she tried so hard to create multiple identities. A Los Angeles News article critiques this attribute, asking “Are the filmmakers exploiting Wesselman-Pierce [Angela] and taking advantage of a woman who didn’t realize what she was getting into? Or do they have the artistic license (or even duty) to share her bizarre story?” This question of ethics among this film can yield various answers depending on the views of the audience, but it is a question that the filmmaker must make and decide for himself. In this case, the filmmakers of Catfish believed that the story that they captured on film was an important story to tell their audiences and perhaps did not account for the feelings of Angela, whom has avoided interviews and been quiet since the film came out (Kaufman). Another critique of this film’s ethics is the question of reality for these events. These two people simply decided to film their friend in his online relationship and ended up with an extraordinary story that was extremely commercially successful. Because of this, some people think that these remarkable events had not been authentic, which brings in a question of ethics between the relationship of the filmmaker and audience. Some also believe that the filmmakers use “none-too-subtle indication that deceptions are to be unearthed” (Abele). However, they insist that these events are truthful (Zeitchik). These questions of ethics among documentary film are highly present in Catfish as these men accidentally reveal the identity of a woman who claimed multiple identities through social media.
It is clear through these examples of documentary film that there is no clear cut answer regarding ethical concerns. A filmmaker must ask many questions when regarding both his subjects and the audience while maintaining his artistic presence as well. This can be a challenge to a filmmaker as he has a responsibility to both the social and personal rights of his subjects, his artistic ability and voice within the film, and the want to entertain and persuade the audience. Between the relationship of filmmaker and the subject, the filmmaker must protect their subjects and obtain informed consent from the subjects. However, ethical concerns are still present if the subject is unhappy by their portrayal in the film. Within the relationship between the filmmaker and the audience, the filmmaker must convince the audience of its authenticity as well as reach out to them. These two variables within the ethical concerns of film are contradictory at times, and are therefore criticized by audiences. However, the documentary film is still something that we, as audiences, highly value as they showcase real life in a new voice of the filmmaker.
Abele, Robert. “Movie Review: ‘Catfish’” Los Angeles Times 17 Sept. 2010. Print.
Godmilow, Jill. “Kill the Documentary as We Know It.” Journal of Film and Video 54.2-3 (2002): 3-9. Print.
Kaufman, Amy. “The Woman behind ‘Catfish’s’ Mystery.” Los Angeles Times 05 Oct. 2010. Print.
Nichols, Bill. Introduction to Documentary. Bloomington, IN: Indiana UP, 2001. Print.
Sanders, Willemien. “Documentary Filmmaking and Ethics: Concepts, Responsibilities, and the Need for Empirical Research.” Mass Communication and Society 13 (2010): 528-53. Print.
Zeitchik, Steven. “‘Catfish’ Blurs Line between Documentary and Feature Film.” Los Angeles Times 19 Sept. 2010. Print.