Article Reviews

Documentary and Bill Nicholls Essay

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1)The means and criteria of an ethical documentary film can be somewhat complicated and blurred because of the simple fact that it deals with the issue of ethics. Ethics concerns itself with how moral values are determined and how a moral outcome can be achieved. Why ethics is a key issue in documentary film is a question that Nichols ponders and addresses. Non-fiction films, or social representations as Nichols calls them, engage the world by representing. Documentary film pushes a certain interpretation or perspective of how the world is.

Documentaries engage the audience in an argument or description that helps us to see the world in a new light. If you ask a normal individual walking down the street about what makes a film ethical, they would most likely state that it ought to be truthful and not lie. This is a very common, and most importantly, accurate answer when it comes to this issue. Things are unfortunately not so simple especially when you talk about an art medium, such as documentary, that involves many creative and technical elements that goes into its creation.

There are really two dimensions when speaking about ethics in regards to documentary film. The first aspect of ethics deals with the filmmaker’s actions regarding the outside world, such as his treatment of individuals and subjects, the influences placed upon the filmmaker from outside forces, and the re-creation and of physical scenes and sets. The second aspect of ethics in documentary has to do with the filmmaker’s actions behind the camera such as editing, voice-over commentary, and the intention of the filmmaker.

This “creative treatment of actuality” is an area where much of the debate rests. Documentary films, in Nichols view, “represent the views of individuals, groups and institutions” (5). In fiction films, for examples, actors are hired and paid to do very specific actions and dialogue for the director, but this is not the case in non-fiction. In documentary, the subjects are “social actors” that are acting like themselves and the filmmaker is only there to capture these natural events. The subjects are not supposed to act the way the filmmaker sees fit.

One can argue that even nonfiction film has elements of fiction because the existence of the camera changes the behavior of the individuals. This might be true, but only to an extent in the sense that non-fiction films are not complete fabrications in relation to the actions and speech of the subjects. Nichols notes that ethics are presented to minimize harmful effects reaching beyond the debate between the indexical relationship between a picture and the physical actuality represented in that picture. Ethics are there to prevent harm that already existing laws do not protect against.

The criteria for ethical films have to do with the relationship between the subjects and the filmmaker, as well as the audience. This relationship between subject, filmmaker, and audience is the main focus for Nichols and serves as the basis for his arguments. This is where the idea of “informed consent” comes into the picture. To what extend ought the participants of the documentary be aware of the plans, intentions, and possible consequences on their lives in regards to the film being made? To what extent is it okay for the filmmaker to intrude on someone’s life?

Informed consent is letting the subject know what it is the filmmaker is doing and planning to do in regards to his/her film. Nichols seems to believe that this is the central issue in regards to ethics in documentary, and I agree with him. This issue clearly comes up in both Roger and Me and Stevie. This issue was very prevalent, at least in my opinion, in Stevie. Steven James goes back to a rural town in Illinois in order to meet up with an old friend he had mentored many years prior. The sexual molestation charges that come about regarding Stephen Fielding bring about many concerns regarding informed consent.

Stevie is obviously a very troubled young man and it is often unsure whether he feels comfortable with the presence of the filmmaker and whether he is even able to speak his mind in regards to the situation. There is one scene where the filmmaker attempts to tell Stevie that he cares about him and will always be there for him, yet Stevie merely looks down at the pavement as if a little child. Is Stevie even capable of understanding the ethical implications of what the filmmaker is doing? His mental handicaps bring up concerns about informed consent in regards to Stevie’s awareness of what the camera’s implications really are.

Is he fully aware that his life, with all of its trails and tribulations, will be archived and televised for many to see? I would argue that he is not fully aware or capable when one reviews the footage. This is also brings up the idea of “consent defence” that is written about by Winston. Consent Defence refers to the idea that people do know what they are doing when being filmed. Winston makes a very important point in consent defence, “…people (except minors or the mentally incapacitated) do know what they are doing” (138). Stevie does not seem to be fully aware of his circumstances.

In Winston’s view, informed consent is a greater challenge to ethics because the more the subject regrets their participation in the film; the more the consent defence deteriorates. The role of the subject here becomes important in the sense of how much they know regarding the process of filmmaking. The third category of participants, according to Winston, is the subject’s consent towards the film without realizing that there might not be any benefit for them. The scene in Roger and Me where Michael Moore finally meets Roger Smith face to face on what seems to be Christmas Eve illustrates this point.

In that moment, Smith was merely speaking to a member of a press and might not have been completely unaware of how the footage might be used. He surely believed that Moore was just another member of the press and not the same man who had been trying to contact him throughout filming. Did Moore have an ethical responsibility to tell Smith how he was to be depicted? Smith was surely unaware of the fact that his words were to be edited between scenes of normal poor rural Americans being kicked out of their homes on Christmas Eve. Would Smith have spoken different if he had known?

Would Smith having full awareness taken about from the reality of what was going on in Flint at the time? Winston uses journalism as a vehicle for speaking about ethics in documentary film because both claim to represent the real and hold tightly to the idea of truth telling. This is the foundation of his analysis. I agree with this analogy in the sense that both documentary and journalism are not supposed to remove or add to the events and people that they depict. Although the stories and events are filtered through the reporter or filmmaker, that filter is not the focus and essence of what is being attempted.

This is a pretty powerful criteria and instrument of measurement in deciding what is ethical or not. An audience goes into a documentary assuming that what they see and what they hear has physical truth connected to the real world, regardless of whether it really does or not. The term documentary inhibits this idea of truth telling. Winston mentions institutions that have attempted to form a top-down approach to ethics. The British Directors Guild Code of Practice has regulations such as the need for journalists to be free from secondary employment, gift giving, and plagiarism.

This transfer from journalism and ethics is a good analogy because it seems that they both are founded on similar principles of a truth-claim. The second criteria and area of interest in ethics is the actions of the filmmaker behind the camera. This issue is synonymous with the public’s belief in the indexical quality of the photographic image. Winston and Nichols both note this important idea in the eye of the public. Winston notes how in the past, “little was said at the outset about the dangers of manipulating the camera to distort reality and nothing much about the morality of doing so” (133).

Although people have become more aware of the idea of manipulation in film and photography, the strong belief in their truth telling has not resided, surprisingly. This is very alarming when nothing the scientific advances that have made it possible for everyday individuals to alter and fabricate images and footage. The consent and behavior towards the subjects is one thing, but the manipulation of footage through editing, strong impressions through voice-over commentary, tones through the use of lenses, and the application of music can strongly alter reality.

A good example of this is the controversy surrounding Roger and Me. Many say that the scene in which Michael Moore is speaking to Roger Smith intercut with images of people leaving their homes had been manipulated. Critics of Moore have argued that theses events did not take place on the same day. Moore might argue that the chronological order of the footage is secondary to the overall consequences residents of Flint faced because of the actions of GM. He might argue that the overall story and moral of the film is stronger and more important that the sequencing of events.

Although this argument might have some philosophical or artistic merit, it does change the impression made on the audience. If the chronology of events in Stevie were changed, that would surely have an effect on the viewer. If from the very beginning of the film we had known that Stevie was incarcerated for child molestation, that knowledge would change the reactions and expectations of the audience. Is it possible to have a top-down institution governing ethics in film? Is it possible to lay down such laws for art? Or s it possible for the film community to govern itself, as Winston mentions with the idea of Civil Journalism? I feel the solution lies somewhere in the middle. The solution lies in the relationship between the audience and the filmmaker. I feel the responsibility lies in the hands of the public, in the sense that one must become informed on the subject of ethics and the workings of documentary film. If one becomes informed, he/she can support and judge films according to acquired intellectual knowledge rather than subjective opinions, emotions impulses, and faulty information.

The presence of an organization would merely complicate things while civil journalism applied to documentary would assume that all involved are ethical themselves, which is a pretty naive proposition in my opinion. 2) The difference between fictional films and documentaries is an important discussion and distinction to be made. This differentiation is vital to defining what a documentary is and what elements play a role in determining definitions. Ward notes that the lines between what are considered fiction and –non-fiction is blurred.

This is very evident with the advancement of software and camera technology that makes it possible for almost anybody to create and manipulate film. Ward notes that although fiction and nonfiction are seen as two separate genres, fictional films have reached the point of having a “residue of actuality that is unavoidable” (40). This is the framework that Ward works within and he attempts to provide clear distinctions between fiction and non-fiction. The truth is that the lines confining these terms has loosened, allowing for a much need overview of everyday terms.

He notes that drama (fiction) and nonfiction (documentary) have exchanged elements to create such hybrids as “docudramas” and “dramatic documentaries. ” The key to differentiation is in understands the ins and outs of film production. The earliest distinction made was the idea that documentaries did not re-enact or reconstruct. The events and persons depicted in nonfiction exist or did exist in the real world, yet the people in nonfictions films out not to act like anyone but themselves. This element is up for debate because one can argue that all people, even in documentaries, are acting for the camera.

Ward argues that just about the reconstruction, but the degree in which this reconstruction takes place. One sign that a film is fictitious, for example, is the use of famous actors, getting away from the authenticity of a documentary. Even though the history of documentary has had numerous accounts of reconstruction and re-enactment, these reconstructions were seen as sincere and justifiable at that time. Ward quotes Kuehl as believing that nonfiction “acting” is very different from fiction in the sense that fiction cannot truly copy the inflections, actions, accents, pacing, and expressions of people the same as documentary.

This argument may be true, but the average movie audience will not think about and notice such misdirection from the real thing. This brings up the issue of having actors’ perfectly re-enacting scenes from a documentary. It is true that Charlize Theron, who played Aileen Wuornos in the fictional account of real events, cannot possibly re-enact Aileen’s actions and expression exactly, she does a pretty darn good job. The advancement of makeup and lighting turned the beautiful Theron into the unbalanced Alieen.

Her mimicking of Aileen’s body gestures were good enough to win an Academy Award, and average audiences would not think about comparing the details of her body gestures with the real Aileen. The argument that fictional actors cannot mimic real life is weak because the art of acting has reached a level where one cannot tell the difference. It seems that Ward acknowledges many of his own weaknesses and turns to the idea that the announcement at the beginning of Monster concerning its fictive nature is the key to telling the movie apart from a documentary.

Ward discusses the difference between Monster, a fictitious account of Aileen, and both of Broomfield’s films about Aileen. He argues that a fictitious film has a main focus point while a documentary lets the events unfold as they may. This is a good argument in a philosophical sense, but not so much on a technical level. One can argue that a documentary can recreate Aileen’s childhood…all it would take is finding a young child who resembles her and reconstructing childhood environments.

A documentary might make references to Aileen’s past actions that cannot be captured on film, while a Hollywood movie can recreate Aileen’s childhood or her capture by police. Bloomfield’s film also states that the documentary is “her story” rather than a story created by scriptwriters, which is based on true events. A documentary captures in an unfolding fashion while a fiction film is unable to do such a thing. He also notes that the distinction between what is fiction and nonfiction may lie in the inherent awareness of the audience.

Unless it is announced, one may confuse The War Game as real events if they had no awareness or access to a news media. A scene much as government officials passing out flyers concerning radiation could be easily seen as a real life event. One could only tell the difference if the film itself announced the fact. Ward’s elements for differentiating between fiction and non-fiction are quite weak, in my opinion, because they only work within very traditional ways of creating film.

These elements might work with certain films and maybe most films, yet some of his points fall short when you apply modern and advanced filming and production techniques that maximize the use of technology, simulations, acting, and reconstruction. His theoretical framework falls apart when you bring up the example of unknown actors acting out a documentary film scene by the scene. Plantinga does approach this hole in the argument by his introduction of his asserted veridical representation concept. Plantinga notes the difficulty of distinguishing between fiction and nonfiction.

The documentary itself is not the problem, but the definitions that have confused this topic. He basis this theory of asserted veridical representation through the analysis of two common definitions of documentary. Plantinga discusses Documentary as Indexical Record (DIR) and Documentary as Assertion (DA) and finds weakness in both of these perspectives in order to present his concept. DIR believes that moving photographic images are indexical records; the nature of a camera gives the photograph a status that is not found in painting.

This is a very good point and simply illustrates the power of a photographic image and a real reason behind it. One reason this indexical nature is so powerful is because the image is independent from belief, meaning that the conditions of the photographer does not alter the image produced. DIR claims “a documentary is a sustained discourse of narrative, categorical, rhetorical, or other form that makes use of moving or still photographic images predominately as traces to represent what the photographic images are of” (107).

The problem with such an emphasis in DIR is that it does not take into account editing in which the indexical element may be changed. The issue of editing does damper this approach, yet the idea that the state of the photographer will not change a photograph when it is taken is something really powerful to think about. The other definition of documentary in relation to fiction is DA, which states that a filmmaker asserts that the accounts within a film holds or occurs in the actual world. This goes against the concept of fiction, since fiction takes a fictive and not assertive stance.

The filmmaker in a documentary shows footage in an attempt to assert that exists or hard existed. DA does a good job at differentiating between prose fiction and nonfiction, but it doesn’t when it comes to documentary. The fact is that both the image and “the sound recordings are to some degree belief-independent” (110). DA accounts does a bad job and minimizes “in which the moving photograph image and recording sound…cannot be reduced to the intentional assertion of prepositional content” (110). From this point Plantinga writes about his concept of asserted veridical representation.

This concept may be vague, but it plays a central role in the idea that people do expect of the documentary a reliable record of the actual world. In reality, the audience expects a asserted veridical representation. I think this fact is also at the root of the ethical questions concerning documentary. Audience expectations cannot be ignored when talking about documentary film and Plantinga makes a good observation. AVR requires that the filmmaker refrain from overt manipulation and staging and AVR also change over time.

I think this is an element that gives the concept of AVR such power, because it is a fluid concept that changes as documentary changes. AVR is not bound by time and has the capability to adjust itself. The idea is that the filmmaker intends the audience to take what is presented as asserted veridical representation. Plantinga notes that AVR does provide a distinction between fiction and nonfiction. Documentaries are to be taken as reliable accounts of, records of, and arguments about the actual world while fiction may speak about the actual world, but it does so indirectly through fictional characters.

Even Plantinga makes the note that the lines between fiction and nonfiction have become very blurred, yet he does say that actors playing historical figures, if done with a lot of quality research, may be accepted as asserted veridical representation. He recognizing the important of being flexible and this is a refreshing and rational approach to the issue of fiction/non-fiction. In a way, he is stating that a film may be nonfiction if it states so and by the filmmaker intentions. He also notes that documentaries present both saying and showing.

As both of these authors have discussed, the differentiation between fiction and nonfiction has become increasingly complex. Ward focuses on surface elements that may point to the difference while Plantinga attempts to dig a little deeper. As technology and filmmaking techniques continue to evolve and advance, it may come down to the filmmaker having to provide the factors for differentiation. The differentiation may come with the audience’s desires and expectations of what a documentary is supposed to be, regardless of theoretical discussions and complications.