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The Documentary Future: A Call for Accountability

By Sonya Childress

By Sonya Childress and Natalie Bullock Brown

For many in the documentary industry, 2020 dawned with hope on the horizon. The festival season promised premieres for many filmmakers, including first-time makers and filmmakers of color who had overcome significant barriers to complete their films. All of that changed in a matter of days in early March, as the reality of the COVID-19 crisis set in, as well as the dawn of a new "normal" that has upended the field and everyone’s lives.

But before the current upheaval wrought by the pandemic, other changes were afoot: a culture shift propelled by a growing discontent with entrenched norms and unequal power dynamics, and a desire to forge new models for nonfiction filmmaking. This tension surfaced on production shoots, in edit rooms and funding panels, but it played out most dramatically on the festival circuit, as stories of confrontations arising at screenings and panels began to make the rounds in the filmmaking community. Each story bore a similar footprint: filmmakers and impact producers, mostly of color, raising critiques of authorship, representation, safety, inclusion, consent, access and accountability.

For those raising public critiques, there was real concern for how their decision to speak out might affect their careers. The conflicts left some filmmakers of color feeling depleted, angry and disillusioned—while some white colleagues expressed feelings of frustration at being publicly challenged, fairly or unfairly. For those watching these conflicts unfold at Full Frame, True/False, Camden and Sundance Film Festival, it was clear that these were not disparate events. What may have appeared as interpersonal conflicts between filmmakers, or filmmakers and festival staff, revealed a broader, structural critique of the field and formal demands for change.

At the root of this discord is a clash between two competing visions for the future of the documentary field.

On one hand, the form is experiencing a surge of interest among broad audiences, thanks in part to the ubiquity of streaming platforms and a growing appetite for vérité, character-driven, investigative and "ripped from the headlines" true-crime storytelling. This much-lauded "golden age" has attracted new filmmakers, new investors, exorbitant bidding wars, and new platforms ready to maximize this trend. But the golden age has also further revealed something rotten at the core of the documentary film industry: an entrenched culture of entitlement and imperialist impulse on the part of filmmakers seeking to tell the stories of communities that are not their own, advancing disempowering narratives about marginalized communities—and all for personal gain. And the corporate money and interests that have begun to flood the field are not only unconcerned about the ethical implications of extractive filmmaking; they often reward this type of "predation."

Yet while new corporate players and profit motives have begun to reshape the documentary landscape, our modern nonfiction industry is still characterized by the independent artists who use the medium to express liberal politics. Indeed, today's filmmakers tackle a range of subjects with creativity, rigor and artistry. They train their cameras on corrupt governments and dancing schoolchildren, migrating animals and personal family trauma, historical events and celebrity exposés, not to mention tiger kings and championship-winning basketball teams. The documentary form provides an incredible canvas to project a range of ideas and impulses.

This creative freedom within the current practice of the documentary appears a far cry from the earliest films of the 20th century. Robert Flaherty's 1922 film, Nanook of the North, which follows the life of an Inuit family, is widely considered the first feature-length documentary film to reach North American audiences. It arrived a decade after the first feature-length fiction film, D.W. Griffith's Birth of a Nation, and bore similar traits. Both received critical acclaim and box-office success, and cemented their place in history as pioneering cinema. Both presented people of color as primitive or savage, and each film spawned cinematic motifs and an intentional centering of Whiteness to all "others" that is replicated to this day in Hollywood and beyond. The commercial success of both films sparked imitators in spite of their controversial nature. Nanook’s arc—a "primitive" but noble subject struggling to survive his cruel environment—has come to be a popular nonfiction genre. The Nanook of today has many faces, but the one-dimensional, pathologizing treatment is the same. And today’s Flaherty, the inquisitive and adventurous auteur who blithely reinforces racial and class hierarchies, is just as common.

Ethnographic nonfiction like Nanook was the original version of "infotainment," aiming to both educate and enthrall audiences. But even in the hands of the most benevolent filmmaker, the power dynamic between early filmmakers and their subjects was wholly unequal; not only because filmmaker biases were never challenged, but because those in front of the camera were quite literally current or former subjects. Western audiences could observe the colonized from a safe distance, experience for a moment their struggles, then retreat into the safety that their class, gender or race afforded. Early filmmakers were lauded for their adventurousness and technical prowess, and encouraged to continue mining other communities for provocative material.

Even when Depression-era films attempted to sympathetically capture the harsh realities of poverty-stricken farmers, the films were almost never meant to be consumed by those closest to the pain and suffering documented on camera. The subjects were not considered audiences, nor were they consulted, except to reenact scenes for dramatic effect.

It is precisely the inequity of unchallenged filmmaker bias and motives, of the chasm between the subject and audience, of film as a tool of racialized colonial power and empire, that became embedded in documentary form more than a hundred years ago, and continues to haunt our contemporary industry.

It may appear that documentary filmmaking has evolved from the unabashed Eurocentric bias of the 20th century, given the perceived liberal slant of contemporary nonfiction. And indeed, there has been a political shift to the left over the last century. We owe much of that progressive tilt to efforts like the radical Latin American Third Cinema movement of the 1960s and '70s. The global liberation movements and political upheaval of that era made an indelible mark on cinema, and a new wave of fiction and nonfiction filmmakers from former European colonies wielded the camera as a sword to challenge authoritative regimes and colonial frameworks. Films were used as ideological tools of political education, to expose power, and show the dispossessed just whose boot was on their necks and explore the best ways to knock it off. Suddenly, the dispossessed were the filmmakers, protagonists and the audience. Cinema was in direct conversation with justice and independence movements. Grounded in theory of change frameworks articulated by political philosophers like Franz Fanon, the documentary form, they found, could serve as more than a mouthpiece for imperialism; it could become a liberatory art form.

Third Cinema activists levied a strong critique of the commercial influence on film—in other words, American and other “first world” countries’ preoccupation with film as distraction, entertainment and capitalist endeavor—and the use of documentary as a tool of colonial propaganda. Argentine filmmakers Fernando Solanas and Octavio Getino offered a prescient critique of the 1960s film industry in their seminal essay, "Towards a Third Cinema":

Until recently, film had been synonymous with spectacle or entertainment: in a word, it was one more consumer good. At best, films succeeded in bearing witness to the decay of bourgeois values and testifying to social injustice. As a rule, films only dealt with effect, never with cause; it was cinema of mystification or anti-historicism. It was surplus-value cinema. Caught up in these conditions, films, the most valuable tool of communication of our times, were destined to satisfy only the ideological and economic interests of the owners of the film industry, the lords of the world film market, the great majority of whom were from the United States.

Third Cinema emerged in the same political moment as social justice distributors and production houses in the United States, like Third World Newsreel, California Newsreel, Kartemquin Films, the L.A. Rebellion, Visual Communications and Henry Hampton's production company, Blackside. These collectives were training grounds for politically progressive filmmakers railing cinematically against a cultural hegemony and money-minded Hollywood; and they laid the ideological foundation and professional pipeline for leadership within today's documentary film spaces.

But here's the thing: in spite of the many ways that the documentary industry has been radically transformed over the last century, as well as the emergence of a modern, liberal-minded film culture, documentary filmmakers continue to be a homogenous community. According to the Center for Media & Social Impact's 2018 State of the Documentary Field report, in which approximately 500 filmmakers were surveyed, the vast majority of working filmmakers today are white, female, college-educated and heterosexual. A quarter are financially able to invest thousands of dollars from their own resources into their production budgets. Despite the fact that the majority of these filmmakers draw their artistic motivation from making a positive impact on social issues, their personal lives are leagues away from the individuals and communities typically featured on camera.

Filmmakers of color, however, experience a vastly different industry from their white peers. They enter the field with fewer financial resources, take years longer to complete films, and confront systemic and cultural barriers throughout their careers. In response, new pathway development programs have been launched in the last decade to remediate these systemic barriers and increase the representation of filmmakers of color, including initiatives by the Center for Documentary Studies at Duke University, Firelight Media, YouthFX and other entities. The success of these artist development programs have resulted in a new class of filmmakers and professionals whose lives, unlike their whiter, older and wealthier peers, more often resemble the lived experience and material conditions of most documentary film subjects. Indeed, if a filmmaker's life is in closer proximity to Nanook than Flaherty, that positionality fundamentally informs how the filmmaker identifies, interprets and shapes the stories they tell. To be fair, members of this new guard often find stories in the same communities their white counterparts do. However, they are more likely to have been raised by these communities, or affected personally by the imbalances of power their films explore, mitigating the inclination for filmmaking as intellectual exercise, devoid of personal accountability, that too often occurs otherwise.

It stands to reason then, that this new class of documentarians would demand greater representation of filmmakers who can tell stories from within their communities (not as curious observers, but as invested storytellers). It also makes sense that these filmmakers would bristle at claims that a filmmaker’s job is to give "voice to the voiceless," and would call out extractive and exploitative filmmaking practices that reward filmmakers who parachute in and out of peoples' lives during a crisis in an effort to produce dramatic or impactful entertainment. This new class has sounded the call for a reimagining of the nonfiction filmmaking ethos, built on values of accountability, consent and respect for the agency of documented communities; and of a trust-based relationship between director and protagonist. Bearing the weight of a form rooted in Eurocentric ideology, this new class aims to take back nonfiction and use it as a vehicle for both personal expression, and as a tool to strengthen movements, build solidarity across disenfranchised communities, affirm the experiences and history of people in their communities, heal from trauma, and inspire joy and political action. Not unlike the filmmakers of the Third Cinema, this new class has its eye on liberation—from patriarchy, classism, nationalism, racism and capitalist exploitation.

Clearly, testifying to social injustice should not be the purview of a select few. Social movements need impassioned witnesses, as well as activist artists. Problems arise when filmmakers eager to explore an issue or who witness injustice forge ahead with little to no introspection about their own internal biases; have no personal relationship to the documented community, no trauma-informed practice to support the protagonist; fail to attempt to put contemporary conditions into historical context to disabuse notions of pathological behaviors; and suffer no consequence for the spiritual or material damage wrought by white savior, noble savage or perfect victim tropes. Narrative justice demands that those closest to the problem define that problem. This necessarily means a rearrangement of who stands behind the camera, but also requires tools to advance responsible, accountable filmmaking no matter the filmmaker.

So, how to free documentary filmmaking from the negative impact of systems so deeply embedded in the culture from which the stories told are culled? Perhaps the answers lie in an intentional, consistent commitment to equity and accountability in storytelling in every sector of the documentary industry, from filmmakers to funders. Perhaps it's a defense of the idea that documentary film should be for everyone as best represented by public media's mandate to present free, accessible, high-quality work from diverse makers. Perhaps it's an embedded requirement in funding applications that crew in decision-making roles must be representative of the communities being documented; that filmmakers must be proactive in their pursuit of diverse production staff; that filmmakers interrogate the biases that shape their understanding of the story. Perhaps it's a rejection of a growing profit motive that encourages a concern for commercial viability over honest, authentic representation of vulnerable people and their communities. Perhaps the question is not simply, Should the filmmaker tell this story? but also, What is the filmmaker's accountability practice? Perhaps it's a merging of old established norms in documentary filmmaking with new, more radical ideas about ethics and accountability.

It is really no wonder that we have arrived at this ideological clash that seems to have pitted a new guard against the old. To move through this moment of reckoning, we must commit ourselves to deep inquiry:

  • What ethical guidelines and core values should shape our work, and how can we express those values through our filmmaking, curatorial, funding and social impact practices?

  • What resources can be developed to help assess the biases and preconceptions that inform our filmmaking and curatorial lens?

  • How can we carve out safe spaces to deeply examine power dynamics—between filmmaker and subject, filmmaker and industry—and imagine new frameworks?

  • How do we embed accountability into funding rubrics and measurements of impact?

  • What other tools and knowledge bases are needed to shift the industry from extractive to accountable?

  • What does this new form of filmmaking look like?

  • How can the field reward accountability practices? And, when extractive filmmaking occurs, how should the industry hold the filmmaker, and those that greenlit the project, to account?

  • And how might this pandemic further complicate, or exacerbate, these efforts?

Recently, a group of documentary professionals have come together to accelerate a shift in nonfiction film, where accountability practices are integrated into the work of all stakeholders—artists, protagonists, funders, festival curators, critics, programmers, etc.—where ethics are not sacrificed for expediency, commercial viability or entertainment. In the coming months, and during this moment of extreme disruption, we will curate resources and strategies to support the adoption of values-based practices across the industry. As we approach the 100-year anniversary of Flaherty's Nanook, we want to see a new kind of storytelling, and a field that demands it.

Selected Reading List

Recommended Resources

Sonya Childress has positioned nonfiction film as a tool to shift narratives and support social justice movement building for over 20 years as an impact producer and strategist. She currently serves as a Senior Fellow with the Perspective Fund, an impact-focused nonfiction film fund in New York City.

Natalie Bullock Brown is a documentary producer, and guides Working Films' initiative for accountability in storytelling as StoryShift Strategist. Natalie is also a Teaching Assistant Professor in Interdisciplinary Studies at North Carolina State University.

Signees: Molly Murphy, Hannah Hearn and Bhawin Suchak