A fellow editor and I had a prolonged discussion over lunch today about ethics in filmmaking. (Vietnamese joint: I had tofu, he had chicken). Naturally, between us, we solved all the problems around that question. We can’t share those solutions with you, but let’s discuss.

What do you do when your character is suicide prone?

How quickly do you pick up the camera to record the fallout from a tragedy?

How do you balance a subjective point of view with actual events?

We’re filmmakers, this other editor and I, and if there’s one certainty in documentary that we both agree on it’s that sometimes you have to lie to tell the truth.

If you want an event to have the impact it deserves in a film, odds are that you’ve had to recontextualize that event within the narrative arc. You might have exaggerated a person or thing via production or post production choices. You might have removed someone entirely from a scene because they didn’t further the story or your agenda.

If we accept that documentary is subjective then it follows that we manipulate material to reflect whatever point of view it is we want to get across. So where do you draw the line?

There are some I know who’ll be pissed off with the question, since it implies that there actually is a line to be drawn in the first place. Censoring oneself, it could be argued, puts an instant barrier between you and the truth. If you’re making a film, say, about poverty, violence, racism, whatever, in the hope of having some sort of impact on the problem you’re discussing, then shouldn’t one use all the tools at hand to get it done? Is morality just something that gets in the way of change?

A friend of mine made a doc that follows their character through disease right up to their eventual death. The experience, I’m told, continues to haunt at least one conscience. I don’t know if I’d be capable of doing the same. It would mean crossing that invisible line, which I take very seriously.

What I do know is that if I were to do it, if I were really sure that it would make some sort of difference, I’d make damn sure to answer the question “and then what?” I’d partner up with folks on the front lines of whatever topic I was covering and make sure that whatever film we’d crafted be used as a tool to further the campaign’s goals: awareness, fund raising, whatever makes the most sense.

I want to believe that that desire is more than hubris and tied to the wish of making a film that goes beyond entertainment or information, maybe acting as a catalyst, a trigger, a call to action.

Alright. So there’s some hubris in there. Gimme some slack while I work on my ethics.

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