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Talking about Documentary Ethics—Among Friends

What keeps filmmakers from having a sure sense of what’s acceptable, in an environment where every day the demands for entertainment, sensationalism, and extremism are ratcheted up?

Fear of talking about the problems they encounter, according to conversations members of the Washington, D.C. chapter of Women in Film and Video (which also by the way includes men) had at dinner meetings throughout the city and at WIFV’s Wednesday One. Filmmakers risk reputation and contracts if they share doubts, conflicts and questions they have about the best way to get their work done. All of WIFV’s hosted conversations, including Wednesday One, were off-the-record and unrecorded.

WIFV organized informal, intimate conversational spaces precisely to overcome the very real problems that filmmakers face in discussing ethical conflicts in public. Participants used the Center for Social Media’s report, Honest Truths: Documentary Filmmakers on Ethical Challenges in Their Work as a jumping off point. Honest Truths discusses how three commonly held values—protect vulnerable subjects; be honest with viewers; have integrity with funders—often come into conflict.

Filmmakers found that many situations in the report resonated with their experiences. They talked, among other things, about being asked to represent innocent people as suspects; about being asked to support a basic premise that, they had found out, was completely wrong; about others taking credit; about re-enactments bordering on fiction; and about poor (or no!) communication between different parts of the production team.

Filmmakers agreed on the need to have a better understanding of shared standards, to minimize where possible confusion, anxiety and poor communication. They wanted to know more about what standards and practices exist in various broadcast and cable networks for documentary production. They spoke about the power of having shared standards, as has happened in the Documentary Filmmakers’ Statement of Best Practices in Fair Use. And they wanted their association, WIFV, to take part in keeping the conversation going.

The Center for Social Media hopes to facilitate such conversations and standards-building with film organizations, both regionally and nationally.