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Honest Truths: Looking at a Groundbreaking Ethics Report, Five Years Later

By Patricia Aufderheide

Pastor Jay Reinke, from Jesse Moss' 'The Overnighters'. Moss included a scene in which Pastor Jay confesses a life-changing secret to his wife. Courtesy of Drafthouse Films

One of your characters confesses a life-changing secret to his wife while you're filming—should you use it?

Your character said something terrific in pre-interview but didn't in the filmed interview—should you prompt him?

A secondary character who's in some essential scenes decides to pull out, and you're on deadline with a fine cut. Do you pressure her? Tell her it’s too late? Say OK and get ready for some long days in the edit room?

At the GETTING REAL conference, filmmakers shared their ethical dilemmas with an audience that, often, had faced similar challenges, and got the chance to vote on the right thing to do before finding out what the filmmakers had done. I was interested, as panel moderator, that the audience mostly came out with the same decisions that the filmmakers had made, even though the choices were highly specific and required a lot of balancing of goals.

I think that showed that what we found out back in 2009 is still true: Even though they don't often articulate their values, filmmakers widely share some basic ethical principles.

When filmmaker Mridu Chandra, legal scholar Peter Jaszi and I did a study in 2009 of ethical problems that documentary filmmakers faced, it was published as Honest Truths: Documentary Filmmakers on Ethical Challenges in Their Work and it's still available on the Center for Media & Social Impact's website, we found that filmmakers shared three general ethical principles:

  1. Honor your (vulnerable) subjects. Protect them from attack and don't leave them worse off than when you met them.
  2. Honor your viewers. Make sure that what they understand to be true and real wouldn't be betrayed if you told them where and how you got that image.
  3. Honor your production partners. Do what you contracted to do, even if you made that bargain with yourself.

The three principles often came into conflict, but filmmakers were adept at understanding, often without articulating how, the limits of acceptability in balancing the three concerns. They didn't always believe they got the chance to make the right decision though. They often felt they lacked arguments to make the right decision because of production pressures (the third value). They disempowered themselves by not articulating their values.

Making those decisions gets a lot easier when you share your thinking with others, and work through problems together. That's what filmmakers at GETTING REAL did, and they found it empowering.

From Stanley Nelson's 'The Murder of Emmett Till'. Nelson had prompted an interviewee to repeat something he has said in a pre-interview. Courtesy of 'American Experience'/PBS

They defied the most common objection to any kind of ethical discussion among filmmakers—"Every situation is different; you can't set any standards that wouldn't jeopardize the art." Of course every situation is different. But that doesn't mean you don't have standards. This is true in all kinds of practices. Every student is different, but teachers come to expect some common kinds of challenges, and also hold students to some common expectations, and when situations come up that are outside the norm, teachers depend on values appropriate to their profession to make the call. In fact, when teachers deviate from those expectations for individuals without having a supporting countervailing value, such as recognizing disability accommodations or medical crisis, students call that playing favorites or picking on someone.

In fact, knowing some generally shared values really helps people navigate the myriad individual situations that come up in the vastly collaborative process of making a film. "Going with your gut"—the most common alternative we heard to working through reasons for an ethical decision—is another way of saying that you should trust to the fact that you have those standards even though you don't articulate them. You can do that, but it's harder and those who haven't developed years of experience in the field—your younger associates, for example—will find it harder.

The digital era only amplifies the need for more and better conversations about how filmmakers are coming to their decisions. It's never been easier to fake an image or a sequence, to insert someone into a scene or delete them. Filmmakers can track their subjects digitally, and with interactive documentaries they can harvest a lot of information that people volunteer without realizing they're donating to a database. When you work with subjects on an interactive documentary, how do you guarantee privacy? How would you safeguard them from interventions another user might make that could put them in an entirely different light? As for your sponsors, when they're Kickstarter donors, what's your relationship--what if your workflow requires changes to your promises?

These issues are not qualitatively different from those filmmakers have faced in the past; they still invoke the three basic values. But they will require solutions appropriate to the medium, the project, and the relationships the maker undertook.

That's why it's exciting that Documentary is launching a column about ethical problems. Filmmakers talking to filmmakers about their ethical challenges is a process that builds knowledge. It's never easy to balance those values to come out with a film that's compelling to watch, that you can show to your characters, and that will withstand fact-checking and the close viewing of those who don't already agree with you. But there's no other way to make documentaries in good faith.

Courtesy of Drafthouse Films

Oh, and the answers to those first questions?

Jesse Moss, with The Overnighters, decided to include the material, judiciously edited, after a conversation with the characters about the importance of doing so. He felt the scene was crucial to the story, as well as revelatory about the character. Fortunately, his subjects agreed after they saw the work.

Stanley Nelson did prompt his interview subject for The Murder of Emmett Till. The man had already said it once, and had no trouble saying it again once reminded.

Gordon Quinn, for an upcoming Al-Jazeera series, talked to the woman, found out what she was worried about, tweaked a little, and she wound up agreeing to be in the film.

When these filmmakers told their stories to other filmmakers at the conference and explained their rationales, showing how they balanced different core values to accomplish their goal, they empowered others—not to do what they did, but to have the courage to think explicitly about their choices.

I can't wait to read the next stories to be told!


Patricia Aufderheide is executive director of the Center for Media & Social Impact at American University.