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Filmmakers Discuss Ethics at Full Frame

By Addie Morfoot

Lyric R. Cabral and David Felix Sutcliffe, with their Grand Jury Award for their film '(T)ERROR.' Courtesy of Full Frame Documentary Film Festival

The 18th annual Full Frame Documentary Film Festival, which ran April 9 through 12 in Durham, NC, was a four-day fest crammed with documentaries, nonfiction filmmakers, producers and interested locals. In addition to film screenings, the panel discussions, sponsored by A&E IndieFilms, also attracted large crowds.

Held in the Durham Convention Center's Speakeasy, the venue played host to a number of panel conversations about controversial issues facing the documentary community. All panels, which were free and open to the public, allowed small audiences to listen to industry leaders like Motto Pictures' Julie Goldman and filmmakers like Marshall Curry and Stanley Nelson take on topics that concern the documentary community.

One recurring topic throughout these discussions was ethics and its role in documentary filmmaking—starting with the first panel, "The Moral Compass." Four filmmakers—Jennifer Baichwal (The True Meaning of Pictures), Lyric R. Cabral ((T)ERROR), Matthew Heineman (Cartel Land) and Ian Olds (Occupation: Dreamland)—joined Full Frame selection committee member Robin Yigit Smith on stage to offer advice and answer questions about portraying provocative content ethically and accurately.

Baichwal, who curated the Full Frame's annual Thematic Program, which focused on moral questions around documentation, kicked off the conversation. "Pointing a camera at somebody is an act of aggression in some ways," she maintained. "I think that your ethical attitude is the most important thing you can bring as a documentary filmmaker to your work. If you are not constantly thinking about that, then something is wrong. That said, every situation demands its own response. It's not like you can have a blanket philosophy and apply it all of the time. You can't."

When it came to documenting an active FBI counterterrorism sting operation, Cabral said she "did not want to mislead" her subject, Shariff, a 63-year-old former Black Panther turned FBI informant. "We didn't want him to think that the story would be entirely driven by his perspective," Cabral explained. "So it was very important to my co-director [David Felix Sutcliffe] and I to tell him upfront that we were going to try and fact-check him. If he told us a story, we were going to try and talk to every other person in that story—not necessarily because we thought he was lying, but to bolster the storytelling. So when we asked him to participate, we told him we would be taking that approach because when we first contacted him, he was very isolated from his community; he didn't have many friends, so it was a situation where we as journalists were going back into communities that he had wrecked and [that were] the sources of his fear. So it was very important to us that we had that discussion up front with him."

From Matthew Heineman's 'Cartel Land.' Photo: Matthew Heineman

For Heineman, shooting Cartel Land, about two modern-day vigilante groups and their shared enemy, the murderous Mexican drug cartels, meant confronting moral, ethical and legal responsibilities. But ultimately, what the director wrestled with the most was getting the truth across. "At first I thought Cartel Land was a good-versus-evil story, but slowly over time it was revealed that things weren't as they seemed," he noted. "I felt an enormous responsibility to tell the truth—the story of what was really happening. To get to that truth, I needed to do a couple of things. I had to spend a lot of time in Arizona and Mexico [the settings for the film] and create relationships with the people there. To me the most important thing came down to honesty, both in telling an honest story and being honest with your subjects."

That said, Heineman admitted that there were difficult issues and situations that came up toward the end of the filming that the subjects didn't necessarily want to be shown in the final film. "But I felt a moral and ethical responsibility to show that [footage] because I knew that that was happening and that it was part of the story," Heineman explained. "So I found ways to shoot those situations without necessarily compromising my subjects."

For Olds, narrative structure and documentary filmmaking also proves to be ethically "delicate territory…There is this desire to reduce the complexity of the world into narrative movement that sometimes betrays a deeper truth about the world."

But when it came to Cartel Land, Heineman relied on narrative construction. "I really tried to employ narrative techniques just because the subject matter dictated that," he maintained. "The characters were so complex and the story arced in such a way that I wanted to employ those techniques."

From Jennifer Redfearn's 'Tocando la Luz (Touch the Light),' which earned the Charles E. Guggenheim Emerging Artist Award.

Following the "Moral Compass" panel, filmmakers Jennifer Redfearn (Tocando la Luz (Touch the Light)), Sharon Shattuck (From This Day Forward) and Alexandra Shiva (How to Dance in Ohio) continued the conversation about ethics and documentary filmmaking during the "Sensitive Storytelling" panel. In a discussion moderated by Sadie Tillery, Full Frame's director of programming, the trio addressed building trust, being present for challenging moments, and developing empathy without condescension.

In From This Day Forward, Shattuck explores her father's intimate transition from male to female. "It was awkward for me to make the decision to make a film about my family," the filmmaker admitted. "At first I was really planning on making a film about other people's families and I was just going to be the observer, but then it turned out that my dad was really good on camera, so that changed the focus of the film a lot." But even after making the decision to focus on her father, Shattuck said that getting her parents to trust her as a filmmaker "was a very gradual thing. It took years."

From Alexandra Shiva's 'How to Dance in Ohio,' which won the Audience Award. Photo: Laela Kilbourn

In order to make How to Dance in Ohio, about a group of autistic teenagers as they prepare for a spring formal, Shiva had to take her time and gain each subject's trust before filming began. "One of our subjects, Meredith, had parents who wanted her to be in the film more than she did," the filmmaker explained. "She was really reluctant. There was definitely a lot of coffee [sessions] before filming her to make her comfortable. When she felt like we were cool and we weren't going to invade her space, she would ask us to write down where we were going to be in her house at every moment [during filming], which we did."

While neither panel provided an instruction manual on how to navigate the ethics of representation, both gave audience members plenty of advice, and even more to think about.

(T)ERROR went on to win the Grand Jury Award, along with Betzabé Garcia's Kings of Nowhere, while How to Dance in Ohio took the Audience Award and Tocando la Luz (Touch the Light) earned the Charles E. Guggenheim Emerging Artist Award.


Addie Morfoot writes about the entertainment industry for Daily Variety, The Wall Street Journal and Adweek. She has also written for The New York Times Magazine, the Los Angeles Times, and Marie Claire. She holds an MFA in creative writing from The New School.