Ethics in Documentary


I was recently in Pakistan on K2 working on a documentary about Italian photographer Vittorio Sella.  When we arrived at basecamp around June 20th settling in we found a few other parties already there.  One of which was Fredrik Ericsson and Michele Fiat who were there to ski the mountain.  June 23rd was sunny and perfect when I received word that Michele had fallen possibly to his death.  He was splayed out like a rag doll below a large rock band.  Instinctively I set up my Aaton and zoomed in as best I could and rolled some film.

A rescue party was formed to head to Michele as we didn’t know if he was alive or not.  Our camera crew consisted of me with my film camera and Dave Ohlson who was shooting on an HVX200.  Dave was also part of the rescue team so I was bouncing between the two cameras using the HVX to grab stuff that involved dialogue and my Aaton for shots of Michele and Fredrik or the mountain.

One of the climbing members Andrew ‘Wilkie’ Wilkinson was taking control and soon became the de facto leader for the rescue effort.  As Fredrik was heading down the mountain it occurred to me that this would be the perfect opportunity to shoot; taking the chance to shift the story of the film away from Vittorio Sella and onto Fredrik.  When shooting a documentary the filmmaker must always be flexible and ready for events that push you in a whole new direction.  Ready to do that I kept rolling.

Wilkie noticed my filming and told me quite sternly “Do you know how insensitive that is?”  Understanding the situation, I responded “Yes.  I do.”  I looked to Dave hoping that he too would see the film that just revealed itself but he said “Don’t roll on this.”  My heart sank.  I obliged.  What could have been a reverent and touching film that would be a homage to the skiers, slipped away.

All of this got me thinking about the Ethics of Documentary Film.  There have been many things written about this and my intention isn’t to go deep into philosophy but instead to focus on ethics as they relate to the situation outlined above.

As with anything we all bring our views to the table, from reading a novel or shooting a film.  These views and ethical standards are what make us human.  Moreover, it will be these views that will and rightly should motivate a documentary film.  A documentary can’t be truly fair nor can it be balanced.  It must be filtered not only through the maker’s eye but then through the viewer’s too.  Which means as Jonathan Wallace points out “objectivity in any writing or work of film is generally a crock.”  So the best thing to do is embrace your opinions and use them to make the film better.

One thing that stood out on the mountain that day was the idea that Wilkie would have never said what he did to a news crew.  Yet, a documentary is far better than news when telling a compelling and interesting story of someone’s life.  With documentary it’s not about a sound bite.  It’s about sharing the details of Michele’s death with those who not just knew him but those who would have never known him at all.  Documentaries dig deeper and go further than the nightly news; they take you beyond simple notifiaction of the story but into the heart of it.  K2 is isolated that it would have been hard to get any sort of coverage in an instant.  When Michele died he was gone in a split second but his story hung in the air around camp for hours and days.

Documentary is not just an action on the part of the filmmaker–The subject is an active participant as well.  The subject is not an object to be manipulated to get to an end.  The subject needs to be shown in a way that is not only fair to them.   But fair to the goal of the film as well.  In the words of Kees Bakker “Opinions should be honest and ethical in a similar vein: conscious of the world view they imply.”  When that world is the big mountain climbing community then who better to share with the world someone who knows and understands what and why they do what they do?  Instead it was members of that community that squelched the incident and did not want to share it with the world at large.

To turn the camera on the situation and document it in an honest fashion would have been the proper thing to do.  It would have stood as a record of what Michele and Fredrik set out to accomplish.

As our tabloids fill up with ordinary people that are made into celebrities due to the simple fact that they are just that ordinary.  And, as reality TV has tightened its strangle hold on our screens people’s concepts of what a camera can do has changed.  A camera now just makes people do one of two things.  1)  Puff up their chest, brag, boast and strut around.  Which will do nothing but obfuscate.  Or, they will do 2) Clam up and avoid saying anything at all.  Neither will ever lead to anything of substance.

To roll on the scene and hope that between the two types of reactions you will find people rational enough to simply say what they think.  And to follow the events as they unfold before your lens is what every documentarian wants in the end.

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