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Honest Truths and Hot Talk at TIFF

At the Toronto International Film Festival, or TIFF, the Center's report Honest Truths: Documentary Filmmakers on Ethical Challenges in Their Work became a hot discussion topic on Sunday September 13, as New York Times critic Michael Cieply noted in his article "At Toronto Film Festival, Cautions on Documentaries". Report co-author Mridu Chandra reported that filmmakers rejected the notion of journalistic standards, but did not have alternatives. Panelist Michael Tucker, whose How to Fold a Flag, made with Petra Epperlein, said he daily faces the question of how much to reveal of a subject's story. Many of his stories, distilled from Iraq war experiences, touch on politically and psychologically sensitive material, and he found his subjects' feedback and involvement to be crucial. Panelist Vikram Jayanti,whose film Snowblind tracks a blind young woman who competes in the grueling Iditerod dogsled race, discussed his decision to opt for a version of the film that was more generous to the central character, and also his decision to expose her father to ridicule.

The report argues that filmmakers lack public forums and shared standards to refer to, when making tough decisions. As moderator, I asked the filmmakers who they should engage with about their ethical choices. Panelist Geoffrey Smith (who works in the UK) argued that the best judges of a filmmaker's ethics are his subjects; his film in the festival, Presumed Guilty, made with Mexican lawyer Roberto Hernandez, concerns an unjustly incarcerated young man trapped in the cruel maze of the Mexican judicial system. The film, by the way, appears to have been critical in the release of the young man, and also influential in getting the Mexican legislature to change the way the judicial system works. Meanwhile, Jayanti never shows his work to his subjects, some of whom—such as the recently-convicted Phil Spector—may not be sympathetic to his portrayal.

Rick Goldsmith, whose The Most Dangerous Man in America: Daniel Ellsberg and the Pentagon Papers , made with Judith Ehrlich, is also showing at TIFF, argued that filmmakers should work to establish common ethical standards and practices (and in a really nice gesture thanked the Center for playing a supportive role to the filmmaking community). Jayanti noted that the BBC uses a clever set of modules, called Safeguarding Trust to remind filmmakers of its ethical expectations for production. As people flooded into the hallway to continue the discussion, it was clear that it had only just begun.