Interview Ethics

In addition to the four warnings above, there is also the matter of the philosophy or ethics of interviewing. Here, we are concerned with questions of sensitivity, fairness, politics, and propaganda.

In documentary film, we use people. Our rationale is that we are using them for a higher purposeā€”to expose corruption, to right wrongs, to promote public welfare, and so on. And in the name of the public good, we delve into people's lives, invade their privacy, and expose their souls. At the same time that we are digging into all this corruption and sin, or simply examining history, we are also using people's lives to make our living. And we know that in many cases the juicier and more sensational a story we can tell, the more exciting and profitable our final film will be. My statements may seem extreme, but an interview can affect a person's life; it can have long-term effects outside the film, and the interviewer must realize the responsibility thus entailed.

I'll give a short example. You interview a farmhand and coax from him or her a story about the terrible conditions on the farm. You retire to your comfortable motel, and a few months later your film breaks the story. You are hailed as the wonder reformer, a great crusading journalist, but as a result of the interview, the farmhand gets the boot.

Another dilemma, touched on earlier, is the legitimacy of digging into wounds and resurrecting pain. Again, we often pretend that we are doing something for the public good or because of the public's right to know, when in reality we are doing it out of the knowledge that exposed pain is great journalism.

Sometimes the question at issue is not how to conduct the interview but how to use the interview in the finished film. I would argue as follows: When you interview somebody, as the director you have the sole right to decide whether to use an answer or leave it out of a film. But if you use it, then the real substance of the answer must be conveyed, even if it is slightly abbreviated. It also goes without saying that in the film itself, you want to portray the whole person and not a series of distorted pictures.

Sometimes, however, the shoe can be on the other foot. This happens when the filmmaker is being consciously or unconsciously used by the interviewee to make a political or propaganda point. A witness in a film tends to receive the stamp of your authority and approval. In effect, he or she is elevated to the rank of authority. Usually that's fine, and all the witness's statements are true. But occasionally the statements are incorrect, and there the troubles begin. By my estimate, this problem of the un-validated authoritarian witness creeps into 50 percent of well-intentioned American and English political documentaries.

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Film Making

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