The Directors Burden

We looked at some of the director's day-to-day problems in chapters 11 and 12, but there are also wider problems that you must confront sooner or later, the most serious of which concern ethics. I am presenting ethical concerns here as a director's problem, but it goes without saying that it is also a matter of serious consideration for the writer.


The relationship of ethical considerations to film practice is one of the most important topics in the documentary field. The problem can be simply framed: Filmmakers use and expose people's lives. This exploitation is often done for the best of motives; sometimes it's done under the excuse of the public's right to know. Whatever the excuse, though, film occasion ally brings unforeseen and dire consequences to the lives of the filmed subjects. So the basic question is, How do you, the filmmaker, treat people to avoid such consequences? It's a hard question and one that has existed in documentary filming from Nanook through the Grierson years to the present.

Now it has a new dimension added to it because of the advent of cinema verite, a technique that allows a closer, more probing view of people's lives, as well as less time for reflection and consideration of one's reactions than any technique that has gone before. Using a lightweight portable camera, one can also intrude and interfere in the most aggressive way, as seen in Michael Moore's Roger and Me.

Many questions lead from the main issue of how far the filmmaker should exploit a subject in the name of the general truth or the general good. Was Claude Lanzmann, for example, justified in filming Nazi war criminals without their knowledge? Does your subject know what is really going on, and what are the possible implications and consequences of being portrayed on the screen? When the subject gave you consent to film, what did you intend and what did he or she intend? When should you shut off the camera and destroy the footage? And should your subject be allowed to view or censor your footage?

There is also the question of economic exploitation. We filmmakers earn a living from our work, building reputations that are convertible into economic advantage. But our subjects generally acquire no financial gain from the enterprise.

Finally, there is the matter of fakery. On British television, in the late 1990s, this subject suddenly assumed major importance after a number of documentary scandals hit the headlines. In 1996, a film called The Connection, made for Carlton TV, about the running of drugs from Colombia to the United Kingdom, was shown to contain a number of invented scenes passed off as real. In 1998, Rogue Males, made for Channel 4, was shown to contain similar inventions. Another British film made in the same year, Daddy's Girl, which dealt with the relationship of fathers and daughters, had one girl's boyfriend play her father.

One may ask, Where is the damage to the audience, since there is so much manipulation in documentary anyway? In physical or financial terms, there probably isn't any. However, I think there is an unstated assumption on the part of the audience that says, "We understand editing, camera choice, and so on, but given all that, we still believe documentary gives us a higher truth than fiction, and that's why we watch." Fakery attacks that basic assumption, and my advice is stay well clear of it.

Obviously, I think that in the end, most of us can justify what we do. If I couldn't, I wouldn't continue as a filmmaker. But the subject of ethics is tricky, and it is one that you must, as a serious filmmaker, come to grips with sooner or later.

Legal Matters

Whether you work as a producer, director, or writer, you must be aware of certain legal considerations. I am not talking about obvious considerations such as theft or personal injury while filming but about libel and slander. These two branches of the law can open up very deep traps that you must avoid if you want to survive. Both these torts deal with an individual's reputation. Broadly speaking, to libel or slander means to defame somebody or to lower his or her reputation in the eyes of the common person. If I call you a slut, a tart, a traitor, a wife beater, an abusive father, or a conniving thief, the odds are that I have either slandered or libeled you. The difference between slander and libel is that the former is a vocal defamation, the latter written or filmed.

If you attack someone's professional competence, you can really lay yourself open to trouble. But two points need to be made at this juncture. First, truth is usually a total defense for a charge of libel. Second, in the United States, intent and malice may have some bearing on whether a libel has been committed.

Though the applicable laws differ from state to state and country to country, the penalties in most places for committing libel can be tremendously severe. This means that you must take care, particularly if you do investigatory documentaries.

Normally, you are allowed to probe public figures more severely than private people, but even then, you have to make sure that what you are saying or showing is essentially true and fair. This is something CBS ignored to its detriment in 1982, when it made The Uncounted Enemy: A Vietnam Deception. In the film, CBS alleged that in 1967, General Westmoreland had led a military conspiracy to sustain public support for the Vietnam War by deliberately giving the White House a gross underestimate of the size of the enemy forces. Later, two journalists wrote an article alleging that there had been extreme bias in the collection and preparation of the materials for the program. In 1984, Westmoreland brought a libel action against CBS. His case was excellent, but it was eventually withdrawn because of various technical considerations and because of the nuances of malice that had to be proved.

Don't think this warning about libel applies only to subjects like Westmoreland. If you attack your local lawyer or school principal for incompetence, don't think he or she will take it lightly. Libel suits are now popular, with big awards to the successful supplicant. So stay clear. Better to use your money for your next film rather than for legal fees and judgments.

Besides libel and slander, one also has to be aware of the right of privacy and the right to the commercial exploitation of one's own life. Whereas the right of privacy issue has been around for some while, the issue of one's right to the commercial exploitation of his or her life argues that your life belongs to you alone, and no one else can benefit from it commercially without your permission. If such a right is upheld, biographical films will become very difficult to do. Both areas of law are, however, in a state of flux, and hardly anyone will venture a committed opinion on the outcome of future cases.

Using Your Wits

As a director, your professional knowledge will take you quite far, but there will be times when your survival and your ability to complete the film will also depend on your wit and your scheming. Murphy's Law has it that what can go wrong, will go wrong. Unfortunately, this law also tends to be true for film. Remember, "Be prepared" is not just the Boy Scout slogan; it's also your motto. And when things go wrong, that's when you have to call on your humor and common sense.

I am not going to cite all the trials and tribulations of filmmakers over the years, but here are a few of the most common:

• After having agreed to talk, your interviewee balks at the last moment at being filmed.

• You fix an appointment to film somebody, and they forget to show up.

• One of your crew angers the person you are filming.

• Your soundperson gets a toothache in the middle of shooting.

• Your crew doesn't like the long hours, the bad pay, and the fact that they have to share rooms and can't bring their lovers with them.

• The camera breaks down, the wrong film is used, the sound gets out of sync, and you get caught in a revolution.

All these things have happened and will happen again. When they do, that's when you have to call on your wits, common sense, humor, and determination to carry things through.

In other words, be prepared to make hard, quick decisions in order to get the film done. There'll be times when the only thing that will get the film done is chutzpah. Chutzpah is a Yiddish word, much used in Hollywood, that can be translated as "outrageous cheek." The best example of chutzpah is found in the story of the lad who killed his father and mother and then asked the judge for mercy because he was an orphan. C hutzpah is guts, boldness, and outrageousness, and it is one of the most essential qualities for a filmmaker. Two short examples will suffice.

In the late 7970s, Emile de Antonio made a film called Underground, in which he and Haskell Wexler talked to five Weatherpeople, self-confessed urban revolutionaries who had eluded the FBI for years. All the filming was done in secret, but then came the problem of developing the materials. The film was processed through Wexler's commercial company, but the audiotapes, which were very revealing, presented more of a problem. De Antonio explains how he solved it:

I took the tapes to a sound house and said, "This is a new kind of transactional psychoanalysis, and I'll pay you your regular rate if you'll get out of here and let me transfer it myself. You see, I've signed a contract with this shrink, and this stuff is confessions of men and women about their inner sex lives, and the contract states that if anyone else hears it the contract is null and void." So the guy was perfectly happy to take my money and let me transfer. (Alan Rosenthal, The Documentary Conscience [Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 7980])

Another friend of mine, Abe Osheroff, made the film Dreams and Nightmares, about his experiences in the Spanish C ivil War. Besides looking at the past, Abe also wanted to examine Franco's Spain of the mid-1970s, which was still a fascist state. Among other things, Abe wanted to demonstrate the cooperation of the Nixon government with Franco and decided this could be done by showing U.S. strategic bombers in Spain. However, given the film's argument against current American foreign policy, it was highly doubtful that the Pentagon would release such footage to Osheroff.

Abe's answer was to establish a dummy film company and write a powerful anticommunist script designed for college students. He then sent this script to the Pentagon and told them this anticommunist film needed certain footage. The Pentagon was delighted and sent him all he needed. There was one catch. The letter giving permission for use stated that if the material was used for any other purpose than that set out in the script, the user was liable to a fine or imprisonment. Osheroff's attitude was that if the FBI busted him, it would be fantastic publicity for the film. Nothing happened. So the chutzpah paid off.

Film Making

Film Making

If you have ever wanted the secrets to making your own film, here it is: Indy Film Insider Tips And Basics To Film Making. Have you ever wanted to make your own film? Is there a story you want to tell? You might even think that this is impossible. Studios make films, not the little guy. This is probably what you tell yourself. Do you watch films with more than a casual eye? You probably want to know how they were able to get perfect lighting in your favorite scene, or how to write a professional screenplay.

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