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Whose Life Is It Anyway? Ethical Responsibility in Documentary Filmmaking

By Calvin Priluck

EDITOR'S NOTE: In 1976, having just become editor of The Journal of the University Film and Video Association, I felt privileged that my second issue could include "Ultimately We Are All Outsiders: The Ethics of Documentary Filming," written by my graduate school colleague and mentor, Calvin Pryluck. The article 'finally placed ethics on the agenda of serious debate," as Alan Rosenthal correctly noted when he reprinted the piece in his New Challenges for Documentary (1988). A month ago, as I accepted the editorship of International Documentary, I asked Cal if he'd be willing to update this piece to share his thinking with the readership of ID. Once again, I feel privileged that the second issue of a magazine I am editing can contain his provocative considerations on this vital topic.

Generally, discussions of ethics in documentary have been narrowly focused on the invasion of privacy or, sometimes, exploitation. Asking the question, "Whose life is this anyway?" tries to broaden the discussion of relationships among filmmakers, the people about whom they make films and others involved in the collaboration. We need to consider a number of relationships and to recognize that ethics deals with making choices among acceptable alternatives. What these decisions are can often hinge on one's morality.

Morality is about how one should behave. Ethics is about decisions among equally valid moral choices. "Thou Shalt Not Kill " is a common moral principle that requires ethical principles to sort out the differences between murder, combat and self-defense.

Although ethics in documentary production is not as serious as these issues, here too the concern about ethics is not a simple matter of absolutes. And, of course, documentary is also a matter of aesthetics. Ethics and aesthetics are both about making choices. Ethics deals with choices in relation to others; aesthetics is about choices in relation to the art object itself.

Each class of choices constrains the other. Aesthetic decisions can have ethical consequences; ethical decisions can have aesthetic consequences.

Consider a film someone told me about some twenty years ago. A filmmaker was filming the life of a subsistence farmer in Vermont. They are alone in the field while the farmer is birthing a calf. Something goes wrong: he turns to the camera and says "Help!" The filmmaker puts down his camera, leav­ ing the sound recorder running. In the edited version of the film the screen is blank while the soundtrack continues until the calf is safe.

One can argue whether footage of birthing a calf in breech position or a blank screen is the better aesthetic choice. Tied to this issue are the ethical alternatives: a documentary filmmaker should not intervene to alter the outcome; or, a documentary filmmaker is a human being with a primary responsibility to aid others, regardless of the consequences for the film. The same ethical conflict has faced television film crews who are first on the scene during a fire emergency. Which choice is made in any particular situation is a matter of one's ordering of ethical priorities.

In any documentary project there are numerous interests and claims to possession (if not literal, at least ethically). More than in a fiction project, a documentary is inevitably a joint project. In fiction films, those who appear on the screen are often people hired to do a job. The U.S. Copyright statute recognizes this in its provisions about a "work made for hire." A documentary project, though, is uniquely collaboration. Without these particular people on the screen, it would be a different project.

Collaboration in a documentary project can sometime create conflicting goals and responsibilities. People agree to appear in documentary for reasons of their own. And, film makers undertake documentary projects for various reasons: to advance personal or political viewpoints ("propaganda") ; to render some abstract notion of beauty; for self-satisfaction ; in the interest of career advancement; or for money, as a hired hand.

Central to any documentary project are "versions of reality" in all their complexity and contradiction. There is no Platonic "truth"; nor is there any inevitability about which version of actuality will appear on the screen. There are truth as seen through various prisms: that of the filmmaker, of the subject, the subject's community, the sponsor, etc.

These issues are central to the long-running conflict about Triumph of the Will. Poised against Leni Riefenstahl's claims of solely aesthetic interest is evidence from the film and the contemporaneous historical situation. The latter evidence indicates that in addition to her aesthetic achievement, Riefenstahl produced a politically sophisticated film that advanced the "message" her sponsors wanted. Does this fact make any difference to the aesthetic argument? It all depends on a viewer's values. My own choice is to reject the aesthetic argument that the rest is irrelevant, while recognizing the impact of the film. By revealing this choice of mine, I am actually diverging a great deal about my values.

For filmmakers to attain their goals necessitates involvement with others: people who participate in the project for reasons of their own, at times without understanding the potential of various risks, including invasions of privacy, exposure to physical danger and other varieties of exploitation. Sometimes good intentions lead to potentially damaging effect. A controversial sequence in Roger and Me deals with the way one citizen of Flint, Michigan, survives by breeding rabbits "as pets or for meat": here is presented a perfectly benign woman as a slightly comic character. Did she understand this possibility when she agreed to appear in the film? Was the filmmaker under some obligation to make this possibility known to the subject before her consent could be considered "fully informed"?

Getting permission to film another human being has some of the characteristics of a con game, with elements of mutual exploitation: i.e., the making of documentary films can often involve public and private agendas for both filmmaker and sub­ject(s). Of course, the chance to appear in "a movie" represent s for some people a grasp at their fifteen minutes of fame. People with a fairly sophisticated awareness of the process have agendas that focus on involvement in creative process, e.g., editing, and before that what can/should be recorded in picture and sound. In other words, what should be included in the film in the furtherance of some personal or political goal.

This raises an issue that I hadn't thought about directly in 1 976, namely that obtaining valid consent for a documentary is, in fact, a negotiation—where power counts. How this power is exercised by a filmmaker depends on the ethical values involved. When filmmakers want to present some person alvision, the demand might be for absolute power over what is filmed and how the footage is edited. Other filmmakers will yield considerable power when their goals involve ambition or simply doing a job of work or as a matter of principle.

In some circumstances the issue is not quite so clear-cut. One prominent filmmaker told me that he does not ask for written consent until the completed film is shown to the people involved. "What happens if they don't consent?" I asked. "Oh, I get the signed consent, one-way -or-another," he replied with a sly grin.

Even if we are not dealing with extremes, there are ranges of power and awareness. People with the capacity to say "no" (a phrase I first heard from anthropologist Jay Ruby) will balance their interests in being "a movie" against the filmmakers need to have them in the film. People with the cultural capacity to say no might say: "If you don't eliminate this scene, is all not permit you to use any of the scenes that include me." By contrast, I know of documentarians who resort to the reverse form of genteel blackmail: "If you don't allow me to use this scene, I can use any of the footage that includes you." In short, it's often a negotiation where the participants on both sides of the camera have "deal-breaker" conditions that arise from their moral and ethical values.

When I first wrote about ethics in documentary filming, it was in the context of the developing techniques of direct cine­ma. Both filmmakers and the people who appeared in their films seemed to work in an earlier ethical context where photographing and being photographed were calculated acts. Discussion of valid consent procedures seemed a proper balance of power for the ethical breaches that centered on violations of the privacy rights for people who appeared in early direct cinema films. It turned out, as I've begun to outline here, that the ethical problems in documentary filming are far more complex than the relatively simple goal of protecting the autonomy of people whose lives appear in documentary films.


Copyright © 1996 Calvin Pryluck

CALVIN PRYLUCK is Professor Emeritus of Radio-Television-Film at Temple University, in Philadelphia. A version of this article will appear in an upcoming issue of Media Ethics: The Magazine Serving Mass Communications Ethics.