Documentary Filmmakers Grapple with Ethics Challenges,
Yet Craft Lacks Ethics Standards
Report will be discussed at Toronto International Film Festival
Contact: Maralee Csellar, University Communications, 202-885-5952 or csellar at american dot edu
WASHINGTON, D.C.(September 8, 2009)—A new report issued by American University's Center for
Social Media finds that documentary filmmakers routinely grapple with ethics challenges, yet the craft lacks
any sort of broad standards in ethics practices. The Center for Social Media is noted for its codes of best
practices in fair use, the most longstanding of which is the Documentary Filmmakers' Statement of Best
Practices in Fair Use (centerforsocialmedia.org/fairuse).
“Documentary filmmakers claim to tell important truths, but they lack standards that help them do that job
with the greatest integrity—particularly in difficult economic conditions,” said Patricia Aufderheide, director
of American University's Center for Social Media and one of the report's three authors.
The report, Honest Truths: Documentary Filmmakers on Ethical Challenges in Their Work, will be released Tuesday,
September 8 on the Center for Social Media Web site (centerforsocialmedia.org/ethics). Aufderheide
presents the findings at the Toronto International Film Festival on Sunday, September 13.
“This report exposes the need for standards and practices, and for an active role by filmmakers in shaping
those standards and practices,” Aufderheide added.
The report is based on interviews with 45 documentary filmmakers, including national television
programming executive producers; filmmakers who had released at least two national level productions; and
those who had experience with nonprofit and for profit outlets, such as public and cable or network
Aufderheide estimates thousands of filmmakers are working on films on a professional basis across the
United States and an incalculable number are working on documentaries on a nonprofessional basis.
The filmmakers interviewed said they strive to create films that expose untold truths and consider ethical
behavior to be the core of their craft, but production demands and conflicting obligations to subjects,
audiences, and artistic visions often create ethics challenges.
Filmmakers aspire both to protect vulnerable subjects and to honor the commitment to accuracy and truth
that they make to viewers. But both goals are often compromised in practice, and the two even come into
conflict during production.
“Does a subject have the right to review and request changes to a film? Is staging an event to help illustrate
the story a form of lying to the audience?” said Mridu Chandra, another report author and a Center for
Social Media Fellow.
As documentary filmmaking has become more popular, so have ethical dilemmas. Controversy swirled
around Michael Moore's Fahrenheit 9/11 as well as his later films such as Sicko, for questions of accuracy.
Bananas, a film about Nicaraguan banana workers and Dole Food Company Inc., recently raised ethics
questions again. The film chronicles the lawsuit filed on behalf of Nicaraguan banana workers who alleged
that Dole exposed them to a banned pesticide on its plantations. The film concludes with the workers
winning a $2.5 million punitive damages verdict in a 2008 ruling.
However, the film did not include what happened next. Dole appealed the decision and the award was
thrown out by a superior court judge who found some of the medical evidence and employment proof was
falsified. The judge ruled attorneys had recruited men not employed by Dole and coached them on how to
testify in court. Now, Dole is suing the filmmakers for promoting the film and screening it.
At the Toronto International Film Festival, the Australian film Stolen will show amid a controversy in which
people featured in the film, which charges that racially based slavery exists in the Saharawi refugee camps
on the Western Sahara-Algeria border, deny that they in fact are slaves.
Make It Faster, Cheaper
The documentary film industry's rapidly-changing business environment has exacerbated ethics challenges.
Documentaries have become more popular as cable has expanded and distrust in mainstream media has
“Now more than ever, filmmakers are faced with unprecedented pressure to lower costs and increase
productivity,” said Peter Jaszi, a professor at AU's Washington College of Law and the report's third author.
“These demands to do it faster and cheaper often place filmmakers in ethically challenging positions.”
The report cites the experience of a filmmaker on location. The filmmaker needed to capture footage of an
animal hunting and killing its prey, but the crew's time on location was running out. The filmmaker agreed
to let a crew member break the leg of the natural prey of the other animal in order to get the shot.
“It eats me up every day,” the filmmaker revealed. “I can sort of rationalize this, that it might be killed by a
natural predator. But for us to inflict pain to get a better shot was the wrong thing to do.”
Finding a Solution
The authors say the report points to the need for a larger, more sustained, and public discussion of ethics
among documentary filmmakers—which has its own distinct challenges as the documentary filmmaking
community is one that is far-flung, virtual, and sporadically comes together at film festivals and on listservs.
The next step is to create a safe space for discussion. AU's Center for Social Media proposes, for example,
to facilitate this discussion through a Web site where filmmakers can anonymously share their experiences
and seek recommendations from peers. Discussion about the report and the proposal at the Toronto
International Film Festival and on documentary discussion websites and listservs will provide valuable
feedback as next steps are devised.
Located in Washington, D.C., American University's Center for Social Media, showcases ways to use media
as creative tools for public knowledge and action. The center, a cornerstone of the university's School of
Communication, provides a laboratory for professional education, communication research and innovative
production across the fields of journalism, film and media arts, and public communication.