Skip to main content

What to Do About Documentary Distortion? Toward a Code of Ethics

By Bill Nichols

Black and white film still from 'Mighty Time Volume 2: The Children's March' of three Black people being hit with a high-pressure hose on the sidewalk. Courtesy of Tell the Truth Pictures

Can we establish standards for an ethical documentary practice? This is not a purely rhetorical question, as the debate around whether Mighty Times: Volume 2: The Children's March (2004; Robert Hudson, Bobby Houston, dirs./prods.) deserved receiving an Oscar in 2005 indicates. The film apparently merged reenactments and historical footage indistinguishably, and used archival shots of violence in one time and place to represent violence in another. (Disclosure: I have not yet seen the film.)

Did this breach an ethical standard? What might such a standard be and who might enforce it? What obligation does the filmmaker have to avoid distortion, misrepresentation, coercion or betrayal, be it overt or extremely subtle, even if such acts appear to serve a higher goal such as "getting the story told" or "exposing injustice"? What responsibility does the filmmaker have for ensuring that persuasive techniques do not distort established facts, rules of evidence and the principles of sound debate?

The Art of Persuasion

Documentary film is an expressive art. Like the orator of old, the documentarian's concern is to win an audience's assent, not provide an "information transfer" device or simply entertain. Recourse to rhetorical devices is therefore not surprising, but this is far from an excuse to abandon ethics. Rhetoric is the indispensable tool for addressing all those issues that lack the certainty of science or dogma. What shall we value and how shall we act--and why? Every society and every person answers such questions in varying ways. Every orator seeks the means to explore such questions and propose answers in a distinct, ideally persuasive style.

What does this mean in practice? A code of documentary ethics must focus on protecting the well-being of both film subjects and actual viewers. In each case an ethical code needs to give primacy to respecting subjects and viewers as autonomous human beings whose relationship to the filmmaker is not limited to or solely governed by a formal contractual relationship.

Focusing on the film subject, the link between ethics and power becomes an important point of entry. The successful careers of many documentary filmmakers have been built on the misfortune of others. Brian Winston has written indignantly that there is a "tradition of the victim" in documentary, especially in journalistic reporting (see "The Tradition of the Victim in Griersonian Documentary," in New Challenges for Documentary, Alan Rosenthal, ed.). The relationship between filmmaker and subject can be similar to that between a benevolent, or perhaps not so benevolent, dictator and his subjects. What limits should be voluntarily adopted to safeguard the dignity and rights of the subject?

Focusing on the viewer, the link between ethics and representation takes on comparable importance. To what extent are we responsible for the truthfulness of what we say? As filmmaker/educator Jon Else indicated to me in an e-mail exchange, viewers will believe certain things to be true and the filmmaker must shoulder responsibility for promoting those beliefs. To what extent is deception justifiable if the filmmaker speaks from the heart rather than as the hired voice of other interests?

These questions boil down to questions of trust--a quality that cannot be legislated, proposed or promised in the abstract so much as demonstrated, earned and granted in negotiated, contingent, concrete relationships in the here and how. An ethical code reaches beyond what a contractual agreement might stipulate, a production code require or a ratings system evaluate. How shall we acquit ourselves in face-to-face encounters between ourselves, our representations (films) and others? Ethical standards attempt to offer guidelines for answers to this question.

An Ethical Code

An ethical code of documentary practice allows us to address the imbalance of power that often arises between filmmakers and both their subjects and their audience. It affirms, among other things, the principle of informed consent for subjects, inflected to acknowledge that documentary filmmaking is more of an artistic practice than a scientific experiment.

In a nutshell, a guiding statement, akin to the Hippocratic Oath that places "Do no harm" above all, might propose, "Do nothing that would violate the humanity of your subject and nothing that would compromise the trust of your audience."

Such a statement is patently vague or fuzzy. What compromises trust? What violates another person's humanity? The vagueness is not accidental. It is similar to any definition of documentary itself. It speaks to the historical context in which ethics are put to the test.

The history of documentary filmmaking is littered with the remains of debates of what might violate subjects or deceive audiences. The sharp attacks by proponents of a strictly observational style on those who advocated a more openly participatory style--represented by, say, Ricky Leacock as the observer and Jean Rouch as the participant--were far from fuzzy. Similarly, debates about whether filmmakers who film in other cultures sought to use subjects to stand for generic qualities that might border on stereotypes was far from fuzzy either when it involved a particular film such as Robert Gardner's Dead Birds or even Robert Flaherty's Nanook of the North.

Documentary conventions change. With those changes, judgments about what compromises trust or violates another's humanity will change as well. That said, it is still possible to sketch out some of the ethical issues that arise with contemporary documentary practice in further detail.

Filmmakers and Their Subjects

The difference in the power of filmmakers and their subjects can often be best measured by their relative access to the means of representation. Do subjects have the means to represent themselves? Do they have alternative access to the media apart from that provided by a given filmmaker? To the extent the answer is "no," the filmmaker's ethical obligation to avoid misrepresentation, exploitation and abuse rises correspondingly. Subjects who are dependent on the filmmaker to have their story told--subjects, that is, who occupy the lower social strata generally and who can most readily be cast into the position of victim--are most vulnerable to misrepresentation and abuse.

As a previous article in Documentary demonstrated ("How Close Is Too Close? A Consideration of the Filmmaker-Subject Relationship," Lisa Leeman, June 2003), many filmmakers are highly sensitive to the ethical dilemmas of representing others who may not be able to represent themselves. They have lent material assistance to subjects when failing to do so could have had dire consequences. Renee Tajima-Pea, for example, filmed a family's immigration efforts for the 2004 PBS series The New Americans. She, however, chose to not simply observe the Flores family's desperate race to get to a government office in time to claim the visa papers that would reunite the family after some 13 years; she chose to intervene and drive the family to the office herself. Her act altered the story's outcome, but her sense of ethical duty to the family overrode the desire to tell a story as if she were not actually there as a responsive and responsible social actor--or person--herself.

Another example of an ethical encounter is Born Into Brothels (Zana Briski, Ross Kaufman, 2004). The film is a brilliant demonstration of how the ethical responsibility of the filmmaker can become the subject of the film itself. Fittingly, it is by helping the children of sex workers learn photography, subsequently used as a means of self-representation, that Briski addresses the balance of power between filmmaker and subject. The refusal to maintain a detached perspective regarding children whose future will be severely limited without her intervention clearly conflicts with a journalistic ethic of objective reporting, but this is why documentary filmmaking is more an art than a news report.

When power flows the other waywhen subjects are notdependent on the filmmaker to have their story toldthe ethic of responsible encounter gives "getting the story" a higher priority. Deception may be necessary with those who feel little sense of dependency and may have perspectives and values (often involving their own use of power) they prefer to withhold or whose representation they wish to carefully mold.

Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room (Alex Gibney, 2005) is a virtual catalogue of the ways in which the powerful set out to use the media to practice systematic fraud and enrich themselves at the expense of others. The filmmakers engage in a struggle for control of the means of representation with what was a very powerful corporation. Distortions and misrepresentations remain a potential issue in cases such as this, but the resolve to tell a story other than the one already told and preferred by the film's subjects calls for intervention less on behalf of the unrepresented than on behalf of a deliberately disguised truth.

Filmmakers and Their Audience

An ethical documentary practice honors reason as fully as possible by using accurate claims and known truths while knowing it must exceed the bounds of logic to achieve persuasive ends. Documentary film seeks to evoke feelings, alter or strengthen commitments and propose actions that are propelled by shared beliefs. These beliefs derive from what is sometimes called the heart; their origin remains a mystery beyond the reach of reason.

How, then, might filmmakers address the vexing issue of deceptive practices, practices that run from rhetorical persuasiveness to misrepresentation and fraud--the systematic effort to mislead, cover up or deceive?

Misrepresentation may involve appearing to present authentic historical footage that is actually reenacted or taken from a time and place other than the one ostensibly depicted--an issue that is at the center of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences' concern about the ethics of Mighty Times. The responsible use of archival footage is a clearly fraught area of debate and no one standard prevails in current practice. Like reenactments, it is an area where consensus about what works, what audiences will accept or trust, remains open to debate and the influence of new works that test alternative approaches.

Errol Morris' famous flying milk shakes did just this when he staged reenactments of different people's accounts of what really happened in relation to the murder conviction of an innocent man in The Thin Blue Line (1988). He never showed "the truth" of the matter, but he made clear that each witness or participant had a different story and that not all of these stories could be true. The Fog of War (2003) also clearly presents one man's view of things, a view filtered by memory and a desire for self-vindication but also driven by a desire to re-examine and revise previous commitments. Deception and self-deception rise to the level of a thematic motif in Morris' film.

Misrepresentation may also involve appearing to "get the story" of a historical event that took place independent of the filmmaker when that event was actually orchestrated for the purpose of being filmed. This was the case with Triumph of the Will (Leni Riefenstahl, 1935). Re-shooting various scenes and combining shots from different times and places to give the illusion of one continuous arrival scene for Hitler met what were contemporary standards for documentary, whereas the orchestration of the entire Nurenberg rally itself for the purpose of presenting it as a cinematic spectacle did not.

Misrepresentation can also take the form of deceiving subjects into thinking they are participating in one type of activity when, in fact, they are participating in another. Obedience (Stanley Milgram, 1965), for example, recruits volunteers for a "scientific" experiment where they think they are testing another person's learning skills by administering ever more severe electrical shocks when, in fact, they are themselves being tested for their willingness to obey commands to administer these shocks--even though the "learner" appears to suffer pain and perhaps die. It is an experiment that could not be done with informed consent, but this blatant misrepresentation is justified by the desire to understand the willingness of ordinary people to obey authority.

None of these forms of misrepresentation were openly disclosed. They differ in this respect from what might be called a "delayed reveal," in which the filmmaker ultimately reveals a previous deception. This practice is common to faux or mock documentaries such as No Lies (Mitchell Block, 1973), David Holzman's Diary (Jim McBride and L.M. Kit Carson, 1968) and Forgotten Silver (Costa Botes and Peter Jackson, 1996). These films admit to their deceptions, at least in the end credits, so that the audience's discovery of them does not raise an unmitigated sense of trust betrayed. It is the failure of the finished film to make a similar disclosure in any form that has made Mighty Times:Volume 2 a subject of ethical debate.

This form of delayed reveal is incorporated into Obedience but proves inadequate. After pushing the subject to continue giving shocks, the actor playing the researcher tells the subject, "The experiment requires that you continue," and then ends the test when the subject refuses to go on or the shocks reach their maximum level. The subject is then debriefed. This set-up is clearly unethical by contemporary standards. The film's subjects must now live with a potentially traumatic, patently manipulative experience and with a public record--the film--of their actions, for better or worse. The viewer may gain the benefit of a delayed reveal but for the subject the ethics of revealing a deception are not so easily mitigated. Both the film's subjects and its viewers may very well question whether an imbalance in power has been exploited in unethical ways.


A documentary ethics approaches a foundational level when it addresses the need to respect the dignity and person of subjects and viewers alike, as well as acknowledge that a struggle for power and the right to represent a distinct perspective are at issue. This foundation does not produce a "do this, do that" set of dogma but instead acknowledges that questions of ethics remain situated in an evolving historical context. What should be done is a question to answer in the particular moment, using basic guidelines rather than rules. Art recoils from rules and a documentary ethics will do so, too.

An open-ended or situated ethical standard--one rooted in the concrete contingencies of time and place--places the onus for determining the ethics of a given film onto the community of filmmakers, distributors and exhibitors, critics, scholars and audiences that has shared a vested interest in the form and future of documentary. It is within this community, more than within the studio system or the Motion Picture Academy, that a constantly evolving and sharply debated sense of ethical standards will give more pointed inflection to the ethical guidelines suggested here. Bill Nichols is the author of Introduction to Documentary (Indiana University) and other books on documentary. He is also director of the Graduate Program in Cinema Studies at San Francisco State University.