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Philosophy Conference Asks Questions about Films

By Sally Acharya

The light was running out, and the rabbit wasn’t cooperating. It kept escaping from the predator, which posed a problem for the documentary filmmaker who needed good footage. It was at that point that an assistant asked a question: “Should we break its leg again?”

The audience gasped when Pat Aufderheide told the story at the 18th annual McDowell Conference on Philosophy and Social Philosophy, which focused this year on Philosophy, Politics and Film.

It bothers documentary filmmakers, too, but not because they’re surprised it happens. It’s a story that cuts close to home in an occupation that prides itself on ethics and truthfulness yet also must deal with the need to tell a good story, meet the budget, and match the expectations of the Discovery Channel and other buyers.

The filmmaker shared the story with Aufderheide as she was researching her recent report, “Honest Truths Documentary Filmmakers on Ethical Challenges in Their Work.” The School of Communication professor discussed the need for an ethical code for documentary filmmakers at the daylong conference that brought together scholars from across the country with an interdisciplinary mix of AU faculty members.

Documentary filmmakers share general ethical notions, but these are not articulated, and they tend to resolve conflicts on an ad-hoc basis while working in isolation on their own individual projects. 

Aufderheide, director of SOC’s Center for Social Media, worked on the project with Peter Jaszi, Washington College of Law, and Mridu Chandra, a researcher and media fellow at the center.

At the philosophy conference, Aufderheide described the results of long interviews with filmmakers on the challenges they face. Questions were deliberately open ended, with filmmakers asked, for instance, to recall the most recent incident where they faced a difficult ethical issue. “Talking about how other people are behaving badly is so fun, we’ve never gotten anything else,” Aufderheide said wryly.

A number of shared beliefs were identified, such as:

  • Do no harm to vulnerable subjects, which doesn’t include celebrities or politicians, who intentionally put themselves in the limelight
  • Make sure viewers get an honest view of the subject, even though footage will be edited to tell a story.
  • Be responsible to the vision, subject, and viewer.

The philosophy conference ranged widely across the spectrum of the film world, with talks on the politics and ideology of film in the Bush-Cheney era, film and human rights advocacy, and discussions of international cinema.

Iranian cinema was explored by Farhang Erfani, philosophy, College of Arts and Sciences (CAS), who discussed the counterintuitive way in which censorship, by forcing film characters into absurdly unrealistic roles ends up exposing patriarchal oppression. By example, Erfani noted the requirement that women in film be veiled even when pictured at home, which is not done in practice.

Jeffrey Middents, literature, CAS, discussed the ways that globalized products can underscore national identity in the hands of Mexican director Alfonso Cuaron.