If there is a recognizable, coherent ethics in fiction-film production, its terms are few and fuzzy. Of course we want assurances that no animals or, for that matter, human critters were harmed during shooting. We bristle at the idea of children represented in certain kinds of violent or sexual situations—although mostly out of concern for the well-being of underage actors rather than the depravity of the acts themselves (hence the current uproar over Hounddog). Occasionally, some group will protest purported exploitation of low-wage extras for a spectacle shot in a developing country or assign an environmental black mark for acreage scarred by pyrotechnic displays. Generally speaking, however, if ethical abuses occur on the set, the evidence remains off-screen. As for the moral content of mainstream movies, there's always the MPAA ratings system. Enough said.
Roger and Me
In documentary, ethics are part of the natural landscape, invoked constantly and from a variety of angles. Not just unavoidable, ethical concerns often factor directly into the action or bubble up as potent subtext. In recent successes such as Capturing the Friedmans and Fahrenheit 9/11, how the footage was obtained, how it was edited and embellished by visual or aural devices, gained a critical weight in excess of any purely aesthetic function. The brunt of the controversy was inevitably around ethical standards. According to Sartre, every aesthetic implies a metaphysic; in documentary, every aesthetic also implies an ethics. Viewers who could care less for the fine points of film technique engage in intricate discussions on the probity of ambush interviews or editorializing voiceovers. If this sounds far-fetched, try eavesdropping on lobby chatter following a doc provocation like Grizzly Man or Why We Fight.
As an example of how such issues impact a film's cultural significance, recall Harlan Jacobson's notoriously edgy exchange with Michael Moore in these pages (Nov/Dec 89). The bone of contention was chronological liberties taken with central events in Roger & Me. In retrospect, Moore's comic assault on corporate arrogance raises increasingly important questions about legitimate uses of dramatization” in nonfiction. In other words, when does factual or scenic maneuvering perpetrated in the name of social insight—or merely “entertainment,” the rubric under which Moore defends his tactics—become something more than a clever stylistic wrinkle? When must we call it an infraction of reasonable codes of evidence or argument, a rhetorical weapon to be shunned rather than applauded? The tendency of nonfiction directors to reach into Hollywood's familiar grab bag of dramatic climaxes, mood music, continuity editing, and optical effects has accelerated sharply since 1989. Predictably, as economic horizons for documentary continue to expand, so too does the pressure of ethical scrutiny.
Land Without Bread
Although thorny questions surround Robert Flaherty's Nanook of the North (22), the fountainhead of the western doc tradition, the locus classicus of what might be called self-referential ethics is Luis Bufiuel's deranged 27-minute travelogue of an impoverished Spanish region, Land Without Bread (32). What makes this exercise in subversion so prescient is that documentary's complicated dynamics of moral responsibility toward its human subjects are tackled head-on in Buñuel's faux-ethnocentric narration. When we are told, for instance, over a close-up of a young girl's open mouth that she died from infected tonsils shortly after filming, our initial response is outrage at the filmmakers' failure to help her. Yet we also wonder whether the narrator has truthfully described what took place and whether our conflicting reactions can be adequately reconciled.
This uncanny hesitation, or double take, is intrinsic to Buñuel's Surrealist blast at the bourgeois genre of actualité. It also serves as blunt warning to contemporary documentarians, especially a growing cadre of first-person storytellers: flaunting ethical conundrums is not the same as confronting them, since the way they are framed textually may conceal as much as it exposes. Camera-mediated relationships between observer and observed, what I refer to elsewhere as the “documentary transaction,” constitute a primary site of ethical disturbance. The flap over what supposedly unwitting yokels in Borat were told in advance of their appearances is a perfect example-albeit in a semi-documentary context-of how real-life backstories inform critical evaluation. Indeed, one surefire sign of a sketchy doc is how many crucial questions about the physical circumstances or verbal agreements governing the recording process-the “how did he get that?” response—are left hanging as the end credits roll. Again, this is not the domain of infotainment gossip or techno-mastery; it springs from the experiential immediacy of nonfiction images.
Two especially sticky issues surrounding camera/subject transactions are informed consent and invasion of privacy. That is, do we believe the film's social actors were able to make sensible decisions on how they were represented, or do we discern traces of manipulation or outright deception? Given the sometimes queasy intimacy involved in doc recording, does the filmmaker offer a clear, convincing justification for displaying scenes of highly personal, perhaps humiliating activity? Admittedly, we are on slippery subjective ground here, but loose guidelines do exist, like whether a subject is a public figure with ample media experience and resources— Charlton Heston, say, in Moore's Bowling for Columbine (02)—or a mentally unstable outsider, as in Steve James's Stevie (02). Despite Heston's age and visible infirmity, it is only the latter film that gives serious viewers pause. To his credit, James is painfully aware of potential charges of exploitation. Even without the obvious trigger of someone demanding that the camera be turned off—a scenic gesture so common these days that it amounts to a cliché—filmmakers are calling attention to processes of documentary inscription as never before.
Since notions of ethical practice change over time, attuned to shifting cultural and technological realities, what earlier generations found contemptible we might deem appealingly appropriate. Fierce advocates of Direct Cinema in the Sixties, including the Maysles Brothers and Frederick Wiseman, rejected voiceover narration, interviews, parallel editing, even background music. The goal was to remain emotionally uninvolved, and editorially detached, from their subjects. Their vaunted fly-on-the-wall mantra, an ultimately elusive ideal, was underwritten more by ethical than aesthetic considerations. Practically everything Direct Cinema minimalists despised is now welcomed in the nonfiction arsenal. In our anxious climate of cultural permissiveness- dubbed the Age of Truthiness (see James Frey, JT LeRoy, et al.)—cinematic pitfalls abound: the stage-managing of animal behavior, already a can of worms for Disney nature docs of the Fifties, was a source of belated reproach for Winged Migration (01); a prominent scandal over unacknowledged reenactments of Civil Rights-era brutality marred Oscar-winner The Children's March (04); and in the ubiquitous realm of found footage, Claude Lanzmann's pointed refusal to include old Holocaust material in Shoah (85) reminds us that not even the archive is immune from controversy. Analyzing several timely instances of camera-level malpractice, however, should help clarify the stakes of ethical inquiry.
Jonestown: The Life and Death of Peoples Temple
Stanley Nelson's Jonestown: The Life and Death of Peoples Temple (06) spins an intrinsically gripping dramatic tale. Despite its humdrum structure of alternating clips and heads, the film shudders with tension: revealing “home movies” of Jim Jones's cultic rituals and rants—reminiscent of the casual recordings by SS officers inside Nazi death camps—segue into testimony by Temple survivors whose memories of the 1978 mass suicide in Guyana remain terrifyingly precise. Yet at the climactic moment of Kool-Aid madness, Nelson's moral compass falters. Survivors tearfully describe how loved ones, spouses, and children died next to them. Brief mention is made of fleeing into the forest, but that's it. We never learn how they made their decision to live, why they couldn't or didn't intervene to save others, and, crucially, how they eluded Jones's armed minions. The effect is tantamount to a Bush press conference at which reporters fail to mention Iraq. Perhaps Nelson agreed that certain aspects of the event were off-limits; perhaps he felt as viewers we didn't need any complicating details, only the hideously raw footage and the present-day emotions etched in the faces of interviewees. Whatever the case, he was wrong; this shocking lacuna casts a long shadow over the film's methods and motives.
Mainstream reviewers too often appear ignorant of differences between fiction and nonfiction production. They tend to accept at face value formal devices or rhetorical assertions that, in a standard Hollywood narrative, would instantly set off alarms but in docs elicit only shopworn, distressingly obtuse epithets: “honest,” “revealing,” “evenhanded,” “courageous.” That Doug Block's 51 Birch Street (06) received such praise is, for me, emblematic of a critical double standard that ill serves documentary's resurgent public profile. An ethically tortured, first-person expose—yet another entry in the burgeoning “family secrets” subgenre—Block's film has an undeniably enticing premise: mother Mina, on the surface a stereotypical suburban housewife, dies suddenly and leaves 20 years' worth of tell-all diaries laden with discontent, depression, pot smoking, and sexual dalliance— exactly the stuff that as kids we might fantasize lurking behind our parents' ostensibly ordinary, if unhappy, marriage.
51 Birch Street
Like a sledgehammer version of Ross McElwee, Block wields the camera as a potential tool of psychological insight. Unfortunately, he overplays his hand—repeatedly. Initially, father Mike is cast as a mild-mannered villain—withholding, insensitive, and unseemly in his haste to remarry—while Mina is shown exuding all the qualities of a smart, old-school Jewish mother. Parceling out her diary ruminations in a rising arc of self-incrimination, Block attempts to reverse perceptions of parental nurturing, just in time for a heartfelt reconciliation with dad. It is, to put it bluntly, the equivalent of bait and switch. Except for verbal accusations by Block and his cranky sisters, there is little to support the harshly negative portrayal of Mike. To make matters worse, realizing how damaging his use of private writings could be—but without which, needless to say, there is no movie—the director obtains the blessings of a psychologist, a rabbi, and Mina's best friend . Well, if it serves as a lesson about family tolerance and the hidden wounds of marriage . . . Bullshit! Devious and self-serving, 51 Birch Street is at best a bizarre instance of a child's (unconscious?) public revenge on his parents, at worst an argument for the licensing of first-person documentaries as dangerous weapons.