August 31, 2020

Producing with Care in the COVID Era: Considerations from the Community

By Ina Fichman and Lance Kramer

Location sound mixer Emily Strong in production in New York City at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic. Courtesy of Emily Strong

“What we need is a shift from ethics to care, the way you care for a child, a grandparent, or a long term companion. Care. Deep human care. Using care as your point of departure when thinking about shooting or working in this moment.”

-Loira Limbal, Filmmaker/Senior Vice President for Programs, Firelight Media

COVID-19 exposed and accentuated long-standing fault lines in our industry: a financial sustainability crisis, the absence of labor protections, and a growing movement to reconcile decades of structural inequities between white and Black, Indigenous, People of Color (BIPOC) filmmakers and communities.

In the earliest days of the pandemic, most members in the Documentary Producers Alliance (DPA) halted their productions. At the same time, people needed a paycheck more than ever. Vital stories needed to be told. And yet people followed directives and told crews to stay inside and turn their cameras off.

As the months went on and the pandemic’s reach and devastation grew, many producers faced emerging pressures to resume filming. For most working field crew—particularly those who were excluded from public relief efforts—finding a way to get back to work was essential to feeding themselves and their families.

In the world beyond our field, we painfully witnessed how frontline workers were mistreated, poorly protected and left vulnerable to the virus. These threats were tragically layered on top of systemic racial and economic injustices for the BIPOC workers who dutifully hold these roles.

In our world of documentary, we wondered whether we could “re-open” our projects if we did not adequately value the lives of our frontline people: our crews, and the people whose stories are told in the films we make. Documentary storytelling in communities hardest hit by the pandemic, built on the labor of people already struggling financially, would undoubtedly place those most vulnerable people—in front of and behind the camera—in the greatest harm.

With such grave health risks inherent in resuming production, many did not want to make any decisions that would jeopardize the health or safety of any crew, or the people and communities whose stories are told in the films. We perused guidelines and best practices that offered vitally helpful safety protocols if you decided to shoot. We quickly discovered that the factors informing the decision of whether or not to film seemed far more complex than following the proper safety protocols alone. 

Through many painful conversations it became abundantly clear that we did not have a set of ethics that would adequately place the care of crews and those whose stories are told front and center—especially under COVID—where making the wrong producing decision could be a matter of life and death. 

Navigating the moment seemingly presented a paradox: is there a way to ensure critical stories are documented, available resources are directed to crews who need to work to survive, and the health and safety of crews and communities are also protected?

On May 26, less than 24 hours after police officer Derek Chauvin had murdered George Floyd in Minneapolis, the DPA hosted an open town hall to discuss the ethics of producing in the pandemic. Presenters shared their perspectives as people on the front lines, either in the field or as production decision-makers, i.e. producers and directors. Producer/director Gordon Quinn, location sound recordist Emily Strong, cinematographer/director Jenni Morello, producer/director Barri Cohen, and producer/director Loira Limbal all shared personal experiences with the group of 100+ participants, exploring such questions as:

  • What are the ethical and legal responsibilities between producers and crew?
  • What are filmmakers' ethical and legal responsibilities to participants in a film?
  • How does the pandemic highlight power dynamics between "outsider" filmmakers and participants? 
  • Does production unfairly impact the most vulnerable crew who are living paycheck-to-paycheck?
  • How do we handle budgets/rates to account for the increased risk for our crew?
  • Should we be filming at all?

The world has undoubtedly changed since that day in May. Under these new realities, we find many of the questions that panelists raised are still painfully relevant. What follows are four essays in which the filmmakers who presented in May further reflect on how we might move forward in this critical moment. We were regrettably unable to include a fifth essay from Loira Limbal, who expressed that “so much has changed in the universe since the panel, and while I do not have the bandwidth to write something that could be truly additive at the moment, I'd like to recommend Firelight's Beyond Resilience series as a resource for anyone interested in hearing the voices, experiences, and visions of Black, Indigenous, and filmmakers of color working in our field today."

We nonetheless share our sincere gratitude to Loira and all of the panelists for their contributions to this effort, and acknowledge the profound toll this moment has placed on those in our community.

GORDON QUINN: “Ask the Right Questions”

Ethics would be more straightforward if they were a rubric, a set of rules. But in making documentaries, where we work within the complexities of real people’s lives over long periods of time on highly sensitive issues, hard rules can’t give us easy answers. In this moment of protest and pandemic, there is even more uncertainty. I have always found that asking the right questions is the best path forward.
 
Before picking up a camera, we need to ask questions about the power relationships and contradictions that are a part of telling stories about the world around us. We need to make sure that our decisions reflect the values of our documentary practice and that we can enable our films to play a critical role within our democracy. We have to be transparent about the questions and contradictions with which we are struggling. As we confront the specific situations that emerge in our subjects’ complex lives and our relationship to them, the core problem is to find the balance between what we feel we owe our participants and what we owe our viewers. In confronting these potentially conflicting positions, we need to understand the power relations between participants and filmmakers, and filmmakers and viewers, and filmmakers and gatekeepers. 

We need to ask: What gives you the right to tell this story? Who is your audience? How might the filmmaking process itself cause harm and potentially retraumatize participants? What might happen to the participant as a result of this filmed record being out in the world? And now there are new questions that we must ask, like, how do we keep filmmakers and participants as safe as possible from a virus? 

Filmmakers should also ask questions about the intended core audience. At Kartemquin, we have made films for and with unions, the women's movement, and movements to fight racism. These films are often stylistically very different from other films we have made that are trying, as we used to say, to "reach beyond the choir" and move audiences that may not be initially sympathetic to our characters. I believe that different audiences require different kinds of storytelling, different styles of making. This can be true in terms of history or culture. A style that may have "worked" in the ‘60s and ‘70s may not "work" today. As an EP and artistic director of Kartemquin, I see my job as helping the filmmakers to find their style, and their voice, which may and should look very different from our past films.

There are questions we need to ask sometimes for the benefit of the field. A concrete example is funding. What are the sources of the funding that support the work, where did it come from and how much, and to what extent are the funders or gatekeepers exerting editorial control? What are the ramifications of their “taste” on the documentary ecosystem? Who are the makers ignored by gatekeepers? Black Lives Matter is the major movement of our time. If the story is about and for a social movement, should the filmmakers come from within that movement? Who should tell the story of the white community and the institutions where racism lives? How can white filmmakers be allies in confronting a funding apparatus underwritten by a predominantly white investor pool and white executives?

The question of power is always key to the question of who gets to tell the story. We are in an industry that reflects the lack of equity in America, and the access to resources still reflects this inequality. How do we get resources to the makers from within social movements? How do we push funders and gatekeepers, and within our own organizations, to prioritize these filmmakers? 

My recent experiences as a COVID patient reminded me of some key questions around issues of transparency, power-sharing and partnership. I was in a hospital for a month. What I wanted from the medical people caring for me was to be able to participate in the decisions and feel like I had power to decide what risks to take. I wanted the same transparency and respect within that power dynamic that a documentary participant and crew should receive in an ethical production. We should always be asking if our decisions are amplifying a participant’s agency, or diminishing it.

Ethics are not static. The questions change with our historical period.

BARRI COHEN: “Duty of Care”

We know documentary DNA is encoded with a certain duty of care depending on the complexities of scene, subject matter, time and context. Unaccustomed to production in environments with high physical risk, most of my alliance-building and care have been around issues of representation and narrative safeguarding. Since COVID-19 hit, I am more focused on care and harm. I think more, too, about activism and why many of us do, or “how” many of us do, what we do. Harm, care and activism—we know they implicate and risk each other, certainly activism (from a place of care) risks harm. I am preoccupied with these ideas, and they take on greater weight with each passing day as I contemplate gearing up to film again.

This DNA of documentary that I refer to is linked to the mutual dependency filmmakers have with their participants. Certainly with my current project, Unloved (working title), I’ve been keenly aware of this interdependency. We rely on our participants for their stories, and once they’ve given consent, they rely on a director and team to take care of their stories, to hold them safe and do them justice. COVID-19 brought this relationship front and center for me, but it came with the potential for more urgent consequences. 

In Canada, where I live, our lockdown began the weekend of March 14, just as I was prepping a call sheet inaugurating the official phase of a fully crewed production. I had worked for over five years to bring a story together about a group of older adults (60 years and above), living with a broad spectrum of intellectual disabilities who had led a successful landmark class action lawsuit against a government-run institution called Huronia (in rural Ontario), which abused them as children and youth. (For New Yorkers of a certain vintage, think of Staten Island’s notorious Wiillowbrook state school.) I had two half-brothers who lived and died at Huronia from the ‘50s through the ’70s, so our family story is caught up in the larger set of narratives about the place, and in the ideologies of “care” and eugenics-inflected ableism, which caused institutionalization across the Western world throughout the 20th century. 

With COVID-19, three things happened for me: Yes, we paused production, much to the disappointment of our film participants. Second, this caused me to pivot deeper into activism, driven by years of witnessing corrosive ableism (my mother became significantly disabled and partially non-verbal from the time I was 12). In other words, I couldn’t be sure that COVID-19’s ableist assumptions weren’t in fact going to leave many of the film’s independently living participants behind. In an already alarming and fluid information scenario, with the participants’ dismay at production shutting down, I wondered if they had a solid handle on how dangerous things were right now for their health, for our collective health. While this sounds pater/maternalistic, I couldn’t restrain myself; after all, apart from their disabilities, the film’s participants are in the more vulnerable age group (as I am too), and many in the group face additional risk factors. Were they getting their safety needs met? What were their news sources? What did they know? Were social workers in touch? If not, why not? Did they have PPE, and know where to source it? What about food and socially safe connections? These are questions that affect numerous other communities across racial and class lines.  

Alas, my worst fears were realized. While the “connected” digital world was exhorted to continue to live, meet, date, enjoy, make films, watch films, schedule doctor and therapy appointments on smartphones and online, many of the participants in our film were just left to figure out how to survive by communication using regular phones or TV. These analog tools were the only way they could figure out where to go, how to get, what to do, or not do. 

My activist turn meant an elevated duty of care, something that as documentarians, again, should be in our DNA: Dropping off PPE, hooking up and educating folks on how to use the internet (to keep them occupied and inside), building out a set of activities, liaising with social workers, friends and allies all became critical parts of our relationship.

Third, once new personal safety norms could be established, talk of filming again could resume. This only occured very recently. IDA’s Carrie Lozano asked us at a Documentary Organization of Canada town hall in May to consider whether shooting now was ethically worth the risk. Could it wait? It’s the prime question, isn’t it? Do no harm. This has meant detailed conversations with all of the film’s participants, survivors, experts and activists about what “safe” filming looks like. In a way, it has to be more collaborative perhaps than I would have imagined before COVID-19. Could or should filming wait? Many felt they had waited long enough, and just wanted to get on with it. And so we shall, just in ways born of the current reality.  

This process and the questions driving them have been brought in sharp focus when actual lives are on the line across the shooting axis. Looking into the future, we’d do well to remember that this responsibility of care has been there all along. The stakes are higher now, and I’m just sorry that it took a bloody pandemic to make me — and perhaps others among us — confront it anew.

JENNI MORELLO: “Who Is Liable and Who Is Responsible?”

As we all ponder how and when we return to work safely during a pandemic, I keep coming back to this question: Who is liable and who is responsible? We already work in an industry that has huge inequality gaps across the board. So often, filmmakers are making films with little means of financial or physical security. I’ve been thinking about how often we have all filmed in a car without a seatbelt while speeding down a highway; and yet, we’ve never addressed just how unsafe this action actually is. In the era of COVID-19, the lack of financial and physical security has become even more apparent. 

I find myself thinking about ethical questions more than ever before: Is it fair to put the pressure of liability on an individual or a small production company? In an industry where we work closely not in an office with other people, but in a world where during a pandemic our work could jeopardize our lives and the lives around us. Who bears the responsibility for keeping everyone safe? And is it fair to place that responsibility on one stakeholder? 

The individual in the field could be the DP or the director or the producer. But in the face of a pandemic, the liability of a colleague dying is simply overwhelming. And yet, we want to tell urgent stories, and we need to work to sustain ourselves. Thus, we find ourselves in a dilemma: How do we move forward in a public health crisis that we have never before encountered?

This unique and extraordinary time requires that we take the space to address the pragmatic safety concerns while also addressing the systemic failures that have not been serving people long before COVID.
 
When it comes to making documentaries, DPs are essential workers. We are often found on the frontlines. Right now, our jobs are to be out in the field documenting this unprecedented historical moment. Our work is essential because so often we are helping to elevate stories that otherwise may never be seen. In turn, I have been repeatedly asking myself: Would you be comfortable going out in the field? Would you be willing to risk your health and that of your crew? What about our film participants—who are already so graciously giving us their stories to tell, without compensation? 

These are questions that every person in a position to hire or setup a shoot should be asking. If we are going to truly grapple with liability and responsibility, we need to put ourselves in the position of being the person behind the camera. If the answer to any of these questions is “no,” then is that person's life worth it if we are remotely calling in? 

Most of us work as non-union labor, without adequate laws, contracts or protections to provide a safety net or hold productions accountable. Who is in charge and responsible if something goes wrong? Do we get paid hazard pay? Who is enforcing the field protocol to protect crew and participants? We must seize this moment to implement labor laws for our crews. Our quarantine time should be covered. We should be working a 10-hour day to guarantee our immune systems stay healthy and to make sure we have time to properly disinfect our gear. We should be cognizant of how working with a face mask depletes our energy and oxygen levels. 

We need to adopt a new creative approach to traditional vérité within the safety limitations. This is also an exciting creative challenge for us as filmmakers and cinematographers to explore the storytelling process with the necessary social distance rules. 

As we surpass four months since lockdown and some states have begun to reopen (while others, experiencing a resurgence of the virus, have closed again), we need to think about the impact of our work on the mental health of our community. We are experiencing a collective traumatic experience through COVID, combined with rewatching the extreme violence of police brutality in neighborhoods across the country. For many the effects of this may be immediate, but for others the impact may not be made manifest for some time. 

As we move forward with our films, let’s figure out as a community how we compassionately navigate these experiences and provide support for one another. We need to also be mindful of the obvious inequality gaps that might become greater because some people will have to say no to jobs. We are already at risk of losing talented people because of the immediacy of financial insecurity, but really, we could lose even more to long-term inequities that persist in our society. Now is the time to re-assess what we value in the indie documentary community.

EMILY STRONG: “Safety Before Filming: A Location Sound Mixer’s Experience”

Along with so many in our field, I am in the process of trying to figure out creative solutions to help navigate the work we care deeply about, my career, and my livelihood in the presence of COVID-19. I am not a medical expert of any kind. I have been reflecting on my personal situation and wanted to share personal reflections from my own experiences, rather than devise formal guidelines. I am in no position to devise formal guidelines, but I have been reflecting on my personal situation and wanted to share the following thoughts and experiences.

After production as we knew it came to a screeching halt in mid-March, I tentatively began dipping my toes back into the field about a month and a half later. A project reached out to me about recording location sound for a feature-length film covering stories about COVID-19 from a global perspective. I would be working with the US team on their NYC beat.

The crucial perspective, urgency of the project, and outstanding safety protocol brought me out of the bunker-like state I had been in from the beginning of the shelter-in-place order in NYC. It was my first step toward making some difficult decisions about whether or not I would go back into the field, with the omnipresence of the virus.

Now, nearly four months into the production, I still do not have a routine or set of rituals that feel comfortable, and more questions have sprung up. Along with following up-to-date safety procedures and guidelines, another area of particular concern for me, when it comes to my values in documentary filmmaking and sound mixing, is the power dynamic differential between us as filmmakers, and our subjects' inherent vulnerability during the production process.
 
Before COVID-19, I cared deeply about applying ethical thinking processes to filmmaker and subject relationships in every project that I worked on. It is now more important than ever that we think about our relationships with our participants, and for myself, every move I make on set as a location sound mixer.

Here are some of the questions I try to work through in conversations with teams before joining a project:

What are my boundaries and values? 

  • Especially for vérité, are the goals of the shoot, spaces of filming, and parameters of the social encounters confirmed? Will the crew be informed if these things change prior to the shoot?
  • Will we have a safety meeting or discussion prior to the shoot?
  • Is the team aware of and being realistic about how working in the field safely can be exhaustive (time, prep, gear, extra responsibilities, cleaning, etc).?

What are the sound needs for this project?

  • Have I clearly and effectively communicated what my needs and process look like from a sound perspective, based on the director/producer’s goals for the shoot?
  • Is there time baked in to prep and sanitize gear before, during and after shoots?

Is there demonstrated trust among collaborators?

  • Is there demonstrated trust, mutual respect, and commitment to collaborating on safety expectations from producer(s), director and crew members?
  • Are the DP and I on the same page for health safety and sanitizing strategies with our equipment and the environments we will be in together? 

Are we keeping our participants as risk-averse as we are keeping ourselves?

  • Is the safety of the participants, and anyone we come across paramount?

What are the current ethical discussions happening in our field? 

The city is beginning to open up and there is evidence that filming is following suit. There is no formula to provide an answer as to whether a project, with its subjective needs, is “worth the risk.” The only thing for certain: There is always a risk. 

*****

As our field continues its deep interrogation and reckoning with racism and its oppressive power dynamics based on white supremacy, we hope that what emerges from this moment is a new paradigm for work and storytelling that is based on care for the people whose stories are told and those who tell these stories. We wish that we had more answers than questions. Our hope is that posing these questions together can help lead us as a field toward a set of shared ethics and frameworks that place care for physical and mental health, financial sustainability and equity front and center.

Working as producers, it is easy to forget the agency that a producer holds within a project. We are often the ones who decide whether or not to move forward with a shoot. We write and sign the contracts with our crew. We set the rates. We negotiate access to film in specific environments. We secure insurance policies that theoretically should protect everyone who is a part of the project. We ask participants to sign release forms (and are now sometimes even requesting that they sign personal waivers with our production companies). Almost always, they are not paid for contributing their stories to our films. We raise money and set expectations with our partners and investors. We often own the film.

As independent producers, even if we are stressed, under-resourced, and facing significant struggles ourselves, we must recognize that a project’s risk and responsibility is often in our hands. So, too, are people’s lives, and we must face this duty as we move forward into this new reality.

As we attempt to move forward as a strong and committed documentary community, we circle back to the core questions Loira Limbal posed during the panel that still resonate deeply:

“What would it look like for our field to shift from project-focused to people-focused support?”

“What if someone gets sick and it is traced back to the shoot? What is your plan? Are you willing to live with that responsibility?”

“What do we reward? What do we normalize? What does informed consent look like?”

“Is this story absolutely necessary? Or am I falling into the naked opportunism that is revealing itself in this capitalistic community?”



Ina Fichman is president of Intuitive Pictures, and a producer based in Montreal, Canada, specializing in creative documentaries and international co-productions. Recent projects include, Once Upon a Sea, a VR experience premiering at Venice; Stray, The Oslo Diaries and Laila at the Bridge. Ina is co-chair of the DPA Communications Committee and Chair of The Documentary Association of Canada.

Lance Kramer is an independent producer based in Washington, DC. He is the producer of the documentary City of Trees (PBS/WORLD-America ReFramed, Netflix), co-founder of Meridian Hill Pictures and co-chair of the DPA Development Committee.

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