Article Analysis: Upfront Filmmaking

arri_newsprintOn an international level, there are few professional standards for ethical practices in documentary filmmaking, therefore, it is important for filmmakers and production companies who produce documentary content to stand out by setting the bar high.  Steve Thomas’ article, entitled “Upfront Filmmaking: The Ethics of Documentary Relationships,” argues that during the filmmaking process interview subjects should be informed about how they will be presented in the final product.  The filmmaker, according to Thomas, has a responsibility to his or her interview subjects.  How closely should they be informed about possible audience conclusions drawn from the work?

Thomas presents evidence that suggests American and European filmmakers have trouble partaking in ethical practices, because they do not always understand the principles in the context of a given situation.  Many believe these practices should be revised to reflect current technological and financial pressures.  Furthermore, in a sea of new content being published daily, filmmakers are encouraged to make their work more sensational for audiences.  This kind of emotional saturation can affect styles of interviewing, and even off-camera interactions with an interview subject.  In this way a participant’s behavior may be impacted, they stand the chance of presenting themselves as unethical.  Thomas recounts his own experience with this wherein he had to deny a subject access to a copy of the film before it was screened to audiences, thus denying them the chance to censor their depiction if they thought it painted them in a bad light.

Another survey distributed to filmmakers found that, in many instances, directors responsible for a film’s production would even deny an interview subject knowledge of what the film would be about for fear the person would decide against participating.  Filmmakers also stated that, in most cases, participants would receive unequal treatment if their views didn’t match the producers of the film.

Next, Thomas discusses the ethics involved in consent.  People involved in a scientific study, after all, are regularly informed on the purpose of that study, but makers of documentary films, due to findings discovered during the making of the film, would have difficulty knowing what the film was about until after it is finished.  The author argues that the relationship between the subject and director would benefit from constant updates as to the central idea.

While there is no specific recipe for making a film, having the interview subject sign a release form is standard practice.  This document performs two functions, one, it authorizes the subject’s participation, and two, it declares the producer as having the ownership rights to the footage.  The article claims that filmmakers typically do not like using these forms, they insist that the legal terms of the agreement are not always aligned to what the production team believes is relevant.

Filmmakers are often faced with weighing the importance of critical success alongside participant and sponsor needs, they should be conscious of a contributor’s vulnerability, and because of these factors they themselves are vulnerable.  Ever fleeting industry-wide codes of conduct do not always provide enough guidance.

Thomas claims that even the most unbiased filmmaking is not completely without opinion.  He brings to light the social sciences theory of reflexivity which suggests that the personality of any creator is revealed through his or her work.

To sum up, the author suggests a useful way of circumventing subject alienation while fostering a storytelling perspective.  It’s about ownership. Thomas came up with a real-life illustration, a film he made with a survivor of an oil tanker disaster, the film was a way for her to tell the story from her perspective.  Amal, the story’s main character, was invested enough to take on the role that a film’s producer might.
Source: Steve Thomas. “Upfront Filmmaking.” From Metro, Winter 2012, Issue 171, p80


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