The Ethics of Making Documentaries
The ethics of documentary-making are, essentially, the ethics of representing other people, and the responsibilities that are integral to that process. A documentary is about real people; it’s not a theatrical performance (well, it’s not supposed to be anyway). These are people who possess charisma; they fascinate us on screen and we want to know more about them. But they are still, to use Bill Nichols’s phrase, ‘social actors’. They present themselves as they are, and their authenticity lies in the lack of direction from a script. But herein lies the potential ethical conflict: how do we turn these real, everyday lives into engaging stories that meet a three-act structure and end with a denouement (final, resolving part of a narrative). How do we make the story of real people a film that an audience wants to see?
As a documentary-maker, here is a list of 10 ethical questions that you should consider straight away:
- How should we treat the people we film?
- What do we owe them, as well as the audience, as we plan and produce the film?
- Should participants receive compensation/payment in some way? Do they have a right to this?
- Should they have the right to block footage being used that they strongly disagree with and shows them in a bad light?
- Is it permissible to repeat actions or conversations for the sake of the camera and the storytelling of the film?
- Or does this compromise the authenticity of the film and its claim to accurately represent reality?
- Are your participants modifying their behaviour for the camera, altering the reality that you as a filmmaker want to capture?
- Should a filmmaker warn a participant in advance that they might be ridiculed by an audience that disagrees with their actions or point of view? Should participants be made fully aware of the risks involved in being filmed for your documentary?
- As you build a relationship of trust with the participant, and they invite you into their world with your camera, what rights do they receive in return?
- If they are unhappy with the production process and don’t want the film to be screened, what do you do? Who is in control of this decision?
Ethics help us answer questions that aren’t covered by the strict rulings of media law. These are principles that guide us as programme-makers, such as Informed Consent, which is outlined in Section 7 of the Ofcom Code. Many of these ethical principles are about the concept of trust: the trustful relationship you build with the subject of your film, and the trust the audience puts in you as filmmaker to be fair and accurate. In 1998, as the docusoaps boom dominated the television schedules and factual entertainment grew as a form of television, the BBC looked at the issue of ethics in documentaries.
Stella Bruzzi quotes from the unpublished minutes of a BBC editorial policy meeting in her book New Documentary. It states:
- Programmes should truthfully and fairly depict what has happened
- Programmes should never do anything to mislead audiences
- While it may, on occasion, be legitimate to reshoot something that is a routine or insignificant action, it is not legitimate to restage an action that is significant to the development of the action or narrative without clearly signalling this to the audience [include the word reconstruction on screen]
- Contributors should not be asked to renact significant events, without this being made clear in the film
- If significant events have been arranged for the camera, that would not have taken place at all without the intervention of the programme-makers, then this must be made clear to the audience
- Shots and sequences should never be intercut to suggest they were happening at the same time if the resulting juxtaposition of material leads to a misleading and distorted impression of events
For further discussion about the ethics of documentary, listen and watch the following:
A podcast from WNYC about manipulation on documentaries.
On The Media: Bob’s Docs Episode 1 – Manipulation
A masterclass interview with Gordon Quinn, whose long and illustrious career in documentaries included executive producer on Hoop Dreams, one of the greatest sport documentaries of all time.
Here is a link to Gordon’s production company
Further reading from the two books below: Introduction to Documentary by Bill Nichols and New Documentary by Stella Bruzzi.