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Categories: Features

Avery T. Phillips explores the ethical minefield that is the idea of honesty and unbiased truth within documentary filmmaking.

Image source: Pixabay

Telling the truth is a vital moral code to abide by, especially when a producer decides to enter into the world of documentary filmmaking. Aside from the inherent necessity of projecting the truth, journalistic stories have a standard of integrity to uphold (as well as a code).

The ability to tell stories in any way, completely uncensored, is considered by most journalists (and filmmakers) to be a fundamental human right. However, as audience members we find that we are not always given the full story.

Richard Francis Kuhns once said that “storytelling is not only entertainment, it is thinking through human conflicts and contradictions.” While documentaries often work to exemplify human conflict, sometimes a producer is responsible for the contradicting facts they contain.

With the surge of documentary films, the entertainment industry has been required to look at the responsibilities producers have to tell the truth.

The Evolution of Storytelling

In modern times we enjoy stories as a way to escape from reality or as a way to connect with others. Children live for night time stories, and may spend time learning their grandparents’ life stories. The ability and desire to tell and hear stories has been at the forefront of all societies for thousands of years, leaving something nostalgically irresistible about them.

Folk tales have survived generations of traditional storytelling as a way for people to understand and explain the world around them. Through years of storytelling we have learned that the strongest tales we see come from the past, surviving the passing down through generations.

Thanks to the rise of technology and availability, storytelling has gone digital, allowing families and filmmakers alike to document moments in time. Filmmakers feel that their responsibility is to be forward facing with the subject, the viewer, and their artistic vision. Different from filmmakers of our days, storytellers are primarily concerned with entertaining people.

Documentaries as a Form of Filmmaking

Finding the realm in which a documentary best fits in storytelling can be maddening. Some journalists argue that documentary storytelling sits somewhere in limbo between journalism and TV entertainment, while others argue that documentary filmmaking belongs in the realm of progressive art.

So instead documentaries continue to live in limbo — between scripted novels turned movies and the nightly news. Disrespected by some niches, while partially adored by others — no matter which subject box a documentary fits into, the importance of truth stays the same.

Documentary filmmakers have a responsibility to be truthful to their vision of the world without intentionally misrepresenting a topic. So while storytelling has no rules on the representation (or misrepresentation) of a person, place, or thing, documentary filmmaking has a moral obligation to present correct information.

Manipulation as a Part of Storytelling

Telling a clear and understandable story can sometimes mean leaving out important contextual details that involve time, place, etc. While focusing on creating the story in the artistic vision, some filmmakers make choices that produce a coherent story, possibly giving viewers a false impression of the sequence of events.

Good documentary filmmaking puts the subject at the forefront. This example tells of nurses and hope, showing the subject (nurses) as important. The documentary however, does not necessarily address the doctors and support staff surrounding the nurses. While it paints nurses in a great light, it does not give an overarching picture of the reality of healthcare work.

As another example, reality TV shows tend to portray addiction from all sides. Shows like Intervention and Addicted attempt to show the whole picture of addiction through loss, sickness, and death, but they often leave out the moments when addiction isn’t taking over their lives.

Both examples manipulate the way the audience sees the subject: strong and steady or shaky and withdrawing. This doesn’t make manipulation a “bad thing” but makes it a staple characteristic throughout all forms of storytelling. Sometimes it’s valuable to manipulate an audience to care about a topic, if that is the main goal. The main issue of concern, though, lies in the fact that documentaries have made it difficult to truly know when and if we are being misled.

Responsibilities of Documentaries

The documentary Vaxxed was created by a man named Andrew Wakefield, in an attempt to show the complications vaccines cause in the fruition of autism spectrum disorder in children. While it showed a good picture of the concern about the measles, mumps, and rubella vaccine (MMR), Wakefield left out polarizing information, an act that has been seen as deceptive.

The director honestly believed the events leading up to the “discovery” of the MMR vaccine causing complications for children, believing also that the CDC knowingly covered up a link between the vaccine and autism complications. The truth is, and still remains however, science debunked any correlations in 1998.

Wakefield failed to reveal the whole truth about not only the connection between MMR and autism to his audience, but also failed to reveal who he was to the audience. After being banned from practicing medicine in Britain in 2010 for conducting unnecessary medical procedures on children and unethical conduct, he released Vaxxed in 2016.

The role of entertainment, specifically when it comes to documentaries, is to create a sense of urgency in the audience, hopefully making them ask themselves: What can I do? But when that urgency becomes based off false facts, they risk opening up the a person’s perception of the world in a different, and possibly dangerous way.

As directors, they must create something that . They must present sides and moments among a vast ongoing story to sway their audience to react. Documentary audiences should consider that a director has chosen how to represent a viewpoint, doing more research on the facts and figures presented in films.

The questions remains: Is it possible for a filmmaker to create a desirable documentary that does not have a political agenda? Probably not. But creating films with full journalistic integrity is the absolute responsibility of documentaries and their makers.


Posted on Jun 28, 2018

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