It is time to “put values into action” in the documentary field, argued Professor Patricia Aufderheide at the Ji.hlava Film Festival.
Regarding ethical issues that documentary filmmakers identify in their work, Aufderheide – who attended the conference online – offered concrete solutions and referred to DAWGs [Documentary Accountability Working Group] Framework “From Thinking to Letting Go”.
“Incorporate anti-oppression practices into your work. Be transparent in your relationships. Recognize your position. Respect the dignity and agency of the people in your film. Prioritize the needs, well-being and experience of those associated with the film and treat potential viewers with dignity, care and concern.”
Aufderheide also discussed the possibility of “covering necessary expenses” by offering participants location fees if filming was done in their homes, rework paid, or simply offered compensation for a missed day’s work.
“If your participant is a young black kid who wants to play basketball, as in [Steve James’] ‘Hoop Dreams,’ maybe you’re considering paying for it,” she said. They ended up getting nearly $200,000 in royalties for the film.
However, such a solution will not make ethical sense every time. “If you make a film about Elon Musk, Elon Musk does not need to be compensated.”
As Aufderheide pointed out, journalistic practices do not have to apply to documentaries. Sometimes showing attendees the film in advance, or even offering producer credits to help shape the narrative, may be the right choice.
“[Not doing it] might work if you’re investigating a corrupt official. It doesn’t work so well when you’re working with a traumatized person or a whistleblower or someone who has experienced sexual assault.”
It’s crucial not to re-traumatize participants and to get informed consent from everyone involved – something the teams behind Jihad Rehab [now “The UnRedacted”] and “Sabaya” have reportedly struggled, Aufderheide said.
But she also gave positive examples, beginning with “Always in Season,” about a mother’s quest for justice after her son’s lynching. Director Jacqueline Olive tried to keep her protagonist safe by shooting in a different city than her home.
In “Overnighters,” helmsman Jesse Moss was willing to take no damning information after stumbling upon his contestant’s secret. “He had a hearty discussion with the pastor about whether he wanted to publish this material.”
As noted by Aufderheide, while working filmmakers repeatedly acknowledged that they constantly faced ethical issues, people continued to avoid the subject.
Still, the conversation continued, with several documentaries over the years stirring up controversy. From Davis Guggenheim’s Waiting for ‘Superman’, accused of favoring charter schools, to The Act of Killing or Roadrunner about the late Anthony Bourdain, where director Morgan Neville used artificial intelligence to mimic his voice .
“These are all questions people have, but they haven’t resulted in change yet,” she noted.
However, in the past three years in the US, significant changes in the industry, including the rise of streamers, as well as racist reckoning have brought the issue into focus.
“All broadcasters are in a very vulnerable position. The people they always thought they were in control of, documentarians, suddenly had other opportunities. Suddenly there are other places to go. They want to make more friends and say, ‘You should work with us, not Netflix,'” she said.
New organizations such as DAWG, Undocumented Filmmakers Collective or FWD-DOC: Documentary Filmmakers with Disabilities also adhere to the dynamic, while “non-extractive filmmaking” should be seen as a priority.
“It’s not enough to say, ‘I’m a good person.’ They must recognize that oppression is built into our society. Be transparent about what you are doing. Go the extra mile to respect the dignity and agency of the people in your film. They are not your ‘subjects’.”
While such solutions are becoming increasingly common — particularly in films about, with, or for members of underrepresented, diminished, or oppressed groups — people who employ them still believe they’re “sneaking around,” she said. He added that the arrival of From Reflection to Release was met with a “huge sigh of relief.”
“It all starts with reflection. As a filmmaker you have to ask yourself: Why am I interested in this film? What relationships do I need to make it? Am I the person who should be doing it?”
“We create a series of questions but don’t provide answers.”