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Report Exposes Need for Documentary Filmmaking Standards

Filming on location in a nature setting.

Filming on location in a nature setting.

A new report issued by American University’s Center for Social Media finds that documentary filmmakers routinely grapple with ethics challenges, yet the craft lacks any sort of broad standards in ethics practices. The Center for Social Media is noted for its codes of best practices in fair use, the most longstanding of which is the Documentary Filmmakers’ Statement of Best Practices in Fair Use.

“Documentary filmmakers claim to tell important truths, but they lack standards that help them do that job with the greatest integrity—particularly in difficult economic conditions,” said Patricia Aufderheide, director of American University’s Center for Social Media and one of the report’s three authors.

The report, Honest Truths: Documentary Filmmakers on Ethical Challenges in Their Work, was released Tuesday, September 8 on the Center for Social Media Web site. Aufderheide presents the findings at the Toronto International Film Festival on Sunday, September 13.

“This report exposes the need for standards and practices, and for an active role by filmmakers in shaping those standards and practices,” Aufderheide added.

The report is based on interviews with 45 documentary filmmakers, including national television programming executive producers; filmmakers who had released at least two national level productions; and those who had experience with nonprofit and for profit outlets, such as public and cable or network television.

Aufderheide estimates thousands of filmmakers are working on films on a professional basis across the United States and an incalculable number are working on documentaries on a nonprofessional basis.

Ethics Paradox
The filmmakers interviewed said they strive to create films that expose untold truths and consider ethical behavior to be the core of their craft, but production demands and conflicting obligations to subjects, audiences, and artistic visions often create ethics challenges.

Filmmakers aspire both to protect vulnerable subjects and to honor the commitment to accuracy and truth that they make to viewers. But both goals are often compromised in practice, and the two even come into conflict during production.

“Does a subject have the right to review and request changes to a film? Is staging an event to help illustrate the story a form of lying to the audience?” said Mridu Chandra, another report author and a Center for Social Media Fellow.

As documentary filmmaking has become more popular, so have ethical dilemmas. Controversy swirled around Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11 as well as his later films such as Sicko, for questions of accuracy. Bananas, a film about Nicaraguan banana workers and Dole Food Company Inc., recently raised ethics questions again. The film chronicles the lawsuit filed on behalf of Nicaraguan banana workers who alleged that Dole exposed them to a banned pesticide on its plantations. The film concludes with the workers winning a $2.5 million punitive damages verdict in a 2008 ruling.

However, the film did not include what happened next. Dole appealed the decision and the award was thrown out by a superior court judge who found some of the medical evidence and employment proof was falsified.  The judge ruled attorneys had recruited men not employed by Dole and coached them on how to testify in court.  Now, Dole is suing the filmmakers for promoting the film and screening it.

At the Toronto International Film Festival, the Australian film Stolen will show amid a controversy in which people featured in the film, which charges that racially based slavery exists in the Saharawi refugee camps on the Western Sahara-Algeria border, deny that they in fact are slaves.

Make It Faster, Cheaper
The documentary film industry’s rapidly-changing business environment has exacerbated ethics challenges. Documentaries have become more popular as cable has expanded and distrust in mainstream media has increased.

“Now more than ever, filmmakers are faced with unprecedented pressure to lower costs and increase productivity,” said Peter Jaszi, a professor at AU’s Washington College of Law and the report’s third author. “These demands to do it faster and cheaper often place filmmakers in ethically challenging positions.”

The report cites the experience of a filmmaker on location. The filmmaker needed to capture footage of an animal hunting and killing its prey, but the crew’s time on location was running out. The filmmaker agreed to let a crew member break the leg of the natural prey of the other animal in order to get the shot.

“It eats me up every day,” the filmmaker revealed. “I can sort of rationalize this, that it might be killed by a natural predator. But for us to inflict pain to get a better shot was the wrong thing to do.”

Finding a Solution
The authors say the report points to the need for a larger, more sustained, and public discussion of ethics among documentary filmmakers—which has its own distinct challenges as the documentary filmmaking community is one that is far-flung, virtual, and sporadically comes together at film festivals and on listservs.

The next step is to create a safe space for discussion.  AU’s Center for Social Media proposes, for example, to facilitate this discussion through a Web site where filmmakers can anonymously share their experiences and seek recommendations from peers. Discussion about the report and the proposal at the Toronto International Film Festival and on documentary discussion websites and listservs will provide valuable feedback as next steps are devised.