November 1, 2002

Frozen In Time: When Our Subjects Become Objects

For almost two months, two documentary filmmakers—Paul Schwartzreich and Mait Quinn—wove themselves into the fabric of the streets of Portland, Oregon. They were exploring the world of homeless teens, with the mission to make a documentary about what it was like to live on the streets.

The film we made, The Runaways, was a startling, honest, engaging hour. The pictures were stark. What we witnessed and recorded was real—and painful. The film aired on MSNBC. Immediately, we received lots of positive feedback; community groups told us the film was a powerful tool to teach young people about the dangers of life on the streets. Everyone involved in the film was proud of what we’d done.

Then, the email came.

It was from Jesse. She had been filmed for the documentary. She had signed a release. She was over 18. But she was unhappy. She said the film “haunted” her. She said that people recognized her on the street. She said she was trying to get her life together but the film was holding her back. What could I do? Could I stop them from showing it? Could I edit her out? Why did the network keep playing it?

I didn’t have good answers for her. And it reminded me that while we’re working for the greater good, telling complex and sometimes painful stories, the people we focus our cameras on often don’t fully comprehend what they’re signing up for. Do we tell them, “This moment of your life will be frozen in time”? Do we caution them, “This is like getting a tattoo; it’s a permanent record”? No, of course not. We’re balancing the needs of our subjects with the needs of our film—and often our buyers.

Buyers—networks, mostly—have a different set of agendas, one that sometimes conflicts with those of both the filmmakers and their subjects. Some years ago, we were making a film about backyard bomb makers for a US network. We found a character in Arizona who had written a number of books about homemade weapons. He had only one condition: we could not report that he had been interviewed—and subsequently cleared— by the FBI of a rather well-known bombing. We checked, and he had, in fact, been cleared, so we assured him that the story would not be included in our film.

But when the film aired, the network had written its own anchor introductions—and found in a bit of research the name of our character at the time he was being investigated by the FBI. The network reported the fact, and our deal with our subject was broken. He felt misled, we were embarrassed, and the network producers held their ground, saying that they had done their own independent research. No one was to blame. But it’s hard to do difficult films about dangerous people when the truth in that final cut is often in the hands of the presenting network, no matter how the contract reads. The impact of this is both ethical and legal, since most filmmakers are required to purchase E&O (errors and omissions) insurance.

The line between covering “characters” and concern for “people” is a difficult one, one that I’ve been thinking about a lot lately. Since September 11, 2001, everything seems more personal. We’re about to send a team back to Baghdad, our second trip in as many months. And I think about the families that we’ve come to know in Iraq and the potential danger that their appearance on US television could cause them and their families. At the same time, I’m thinking a lot about the people that dug deep in to their souls to share stories about 9/11 for our film Witness: 911 that we made with National Geographic. Will these people be calling or writing me in two years to say that having those stories frozen in time has them reliving painful memories?

The line between art and commerce is always a Faustian bargain. Documentary in its purest form is a film made with no commercial concerns. It’s the artistic equivalent of a painter working alone in a studio. But once you add a gallery or a patron, the concerns of the painter change. What does the client want? Can we satisfy that need? And in the end, will the painting be something we’re willing to sign our name to? The pull of art and the push of commerce are natural forces, but in that tug of war, who’s pulling for the people who’ve open their homes, their lives and their most intimate details to us?

We are filmmakers. We look for ways to find truth and freeze it on film. But in some ways, we’re the ones picking the memories that our subjects will have to face for the rest of our lives. And the images that are the most lasting are often the ones that capture people at their most vulnerable. That’s probably just the way it has to be. But it’s worth remembering we can make choices as well.

 

Steve Rosenbaum is CEO of CameraPlanet.com. He can be reached at Steve.Rosenbaum@CameraPlanet.com.

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