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The Missing Link in Documentary Ethics: The Viewer

By Victor Guimarães

From Victoria Linares Villegas It Runs in the Family. Courtesy of True/False. Hand holding a black and white photo in focus of three people in front of a large statue and building.

This year’s Getting Real conference was marked by a constant debate around ethical choices in documentary filmmaking. Every aspect of the process was assessed: not only the role of filmmakers but also those of editors, producers, and funders were subjected to critical scrutiny. Even the rights of documentary participants had a space to be debated. But there was a missing link: without deep discussions around actual films that everybody in the room had seen, how could we evaluate documentary ethics from the standpoint of the viewer?

In his classic book Le documentaire, un autre cinéma, French author Guy Gauthier makes a sort of joke, comparing documentary practice with judiciary procedures: “A documentary is like a lawsuit: a witness can be a false witness, and a judge manipulated. (...) As there is no ‘Supreme Court’ for documentary filmmakers, nor an instance of appeal; as simple rules created for a neighboring profession, journalism, cannot be applied; as they would limit creative freedom, surveillance can only be exercised by the viewer.” The comparison with legal processes is interesting for many reasons—first of all, our conversations about cinema today look very much like a courtroom, where everyone seems to be acting as a judge. Usually, the mere mention of the word “problematic” shuts down a conversation. Every discussion of a formal choice can often be seen as a personal attack on a filmmaker. On the other hand, knowing about some problematic aspect of a film’s process can very often prevent a person from actually watching the film.

The current moment is loaded. And although it is certainly healthy that all the aspects of documentary filmmaking are subject to critical assessment, we can never lose sight of the materiality of films. One of the panels at Getting Real was presented like this: “Documentary filmmaking is an ethicist’s playground. When is it acceptable to alter the chronology of your material? How about introducing non-diegetic sounds to a scene? Can you turn a blind eye to your protagonist’s flaws? This is all murky territory that gets decided on a case-by-case basis. When an important stakeholder feels a line has been crossed, the consequences can be drastic: angry broadcasters, betrayed public, and upset participants.” During the entire conference, there were several panels dedicated to exploring ethical problems at every step of the process. In that particular panel, even the viewer was at stake. But throughout the conference, there were very few opportunities to discuss particular films to assess the ethical choices facing material images and sounds. Without deep conversations about specific choices, how could we evaluate the work of the viewer, which, according to Gauthier, is the only possible judge? 

Nowadays, the conversations around cinema—especially documentary cinema—are completely dominated by a tyranny of the process. Attending some festivals in Latin America and Europe over the past 10 years, I started to notice that the first question that arises in any Q&A with a filmmaker—especially a documentary filmmaker—is always about the process. There is an overall urge, mostly tacit, to check if the making was problem-free. Floating in the air is an implied assumption: every documentary should do whatever it takes to please its participants and respect the good manners of filmmaking. There is an imaginary checklist, ready to be materialized in every conversation with a filmmaker: Were your participants fully aware of the film you were doing? Did they have a chance to influence the editing process? Were they happy with the results? (Any resemblance to questions raised at a marketing campaign approval meeting is purely coincidental). That’s why it was so interesting to witness the responses of Dominican filmmaker Victoria Linares Villegas at the panel “Issues in Personal Documentary.” When asked similar questions about her contract with the participants of her film It Runs in the Family, she responded, “I wanted to escape my family [the movie is about that], so the contract was not what you would expect. They were OK with taking part in the film, but they didn’t know exactly what I was doing, and I don’t think I owe them that.” I could feel the air density in the room when she said it. In our current environment, a bold statement like that feels completely alien. But if we want to assess the ethical quality of that encounter between the filmmaker and the participants of her film, we cannot do it by simply trying to judge the process. We have to watch the film and face it critically. 

It Runs in the Family begins with domestic footage that places the filmmaker, as a little kid, in the center of the image. She is moving in front of the camera, bare-chested, surrounded by her cousins, trying to imitate their little demonstrations of strength with her skinny arms. While the boys tease her and repeatedly try to remove her panties, the camera never stops recording. Whoever is filming sustains the tiny spectacle of male violence for domestic viewing while she’s trying to resist. The editing of It Runs in the Family encapsulates that moment and stresses it several times, bringing back the footage and turning it into a foundational image. With that powerful starting point, the film will then investigate the absence around Oscar Torres, one of the first filmmakers of the Dominican Republic, who happened to be the filmmaker’s uncle and who was also, like her, a queer person. The editing stresses, in a very subtle way, the parallels between the family erasure of Oscar’s memory and Victoria’s struggle to be fully remembered. So when, near the end, she boldly begins to stage a fragment of one of Oscar’s scripts—a rape scene—and chooses her parents as the actors, the violent energy of the first image is there, haunting us. The viewer has to deal with the ethical trouble: Will she avenge her childhood scene? And the film answers right away, Yes, but only to a certain point. The actual rape is not fully staged by her parents, and that editing choice for that specific film makes all the difference. It is definitely the ethical one. The film boldly takes the risk of collapsing; it doesn’t shy away from its self-imposed task, but it also doesn’t cross the line into a reenactment of the spectacle of violence. The result is a troubling beauty, full of contradictions, on the edge of the abyss. As the film breathes, the viewer is alive.

Ethics and aesthetics are inseparable. And the only battleground to judge ethical—as well as aesthetical—choices is not an abstract and generic assessment of the process but a specific, singular, critical encounter between a viewer and the materiality of each film. Or, as Argentinian literary critic Beatriz Sarlo would put it, “Men and women are equal; texts are not. (…) The equality of texts is equivalent to the suppression of the qualities that make them valuable.” The dream scenario for many would be something like that sentence signed by the American Humane Association we usually find at the ending credits of movies—“No animals were harmed in the making of this film…”—but for humans. Some sort of fair-trade certificate that could ensure the ethical cleanliness of each production and keep the viewer in a safe position. But what is true for a movie like It Runs in the Family (a seemingly problematic process from the outside can reveal a strong—both ethically and aesthetically—film on the inside) can also be thought of in the opposite way: an ethically clean sheet in terms of the making is not a guarantee of artistic—or ethical—value.  

If we think of a film like Man on Earth (Amiel Courtin-Wilson, 2022), a well-regarded documentary from this year’s Sheffield Doc/Fest, there’s apparently nothing wrong in terms of the making. Bob is a man struggling with Parkinson’s disease who decides to legally end his life, and the film follows that monumental experience in an intimate way. Bob wants the film to be made, the family is on board, and that contract seems perfectly believable throughout the film. In that specific case, the question about the approval of the resulting film could never be made because the protagonist is dead before the film is done (that was the whole point, after all). But that is not the problem. The issue with Man on Earth is not that it betrays its participant. The problem is with us, viewers. Man on Earth is a film that takes any chance it gets to transform the banality of disease and the quotidian aspect of death into a transcendental statement about the human condition (but filmed in the most commonplace Hollywood style). The grandeur of the editing, the shots in slow motion, the extremely sentimental music, the constant stressing of the most fragile moments of the protagonist, and all the formal choices reduce every aspect of Bob’s personality to pain and misery. As if it was necessary, the film constantly forces us to cry with every gesture, preventing us from dealing with the complexity and richness of that experience. The film’s painful, mortifying, extractive style is a way of gambling with a person’s death on screen. For the viewer, the protagonist is not a man on Earth but a reservoir of pity. Long before Bob has ceased to breathe on screen, the viewer—at least this one—is dead inside. 

Every film builds an ethical relationship with the viewer through very specific aesthetic choices. And the role of film criticism is to depart from the viewing experience, dwell on that encounter, and share it with other viewers. The process can be clean and just, and beautiful (no harm done to anyone involved), and the resulting film can still be harmless in an artistic sense. The world is full of works with a clean sheet regarding their process, and yet, when they light the screen, nobody gets burned. On the other hand, the power of a film has nothing to do with a problem-free filmmaking process. What great art does is make us uneasy, trouble our sensibility, shake our internal rhythms, and tear up our inherited senses. And only a strong, fruitful, critical relationship between a viewer and a film can reveal the ethical and aesthetical power of that encounter.

Victor Guimarães is a film critic, programmer, and teacher based in Belo Horizonte, Brazil. He is currently a columnist at Con Los Ojos Abiertos (Argentina). His work has appeared in publications such as Cinética, Senses of Cinema, Kinoscope, Desistfilm, La Vida Útil, La Furia Umana, and Cahiers du Cinéma. He has curated retrospectives such as Argentina Rebelde (2015) and special programs for festivals such as 3 Continents (France), Woche der Kritik (Germany), and Frontera Sur (Chile). He is currently a programmer at FICValdivia (Chile) and the artistic director of FENDA (Brazil). He holds a Ph.D. in Communications from UFMG, with a research stage at Université Sorbonne-Nouvelle (Paris 3).