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August 31, 2023

BLOG: The Ethics of True Stories

Albatross Arts is an organisation that breaks down access barriers to the arts. We support people by providing inclusive, high quality creative opportunities and taking on social challenges together in order to benefit communities. The blogs we publish feature contributions from team members, collaborators and partners. On this editon, Sam Gonçalves, our Social and Digital Media Coordinator, reflects on the ethics on nonfiction filmmaking.

“You have to kick the hornet’s nest”

Those were the words of legendary filmmaker Werner Herzog when describing the job of filmmakers.

Over the last ten years I’ve been making short films and have found no shortage of ethical  dilemmas in the process. The relationship between documentary filmmaking and community development is a good example. As Albatross Arts works in the overlap of the art and social worlds, I want to consider: is it ethical to capture and tell the stories we find in a community setting?

There are many pitfalls to telling real stories, not least the privacy and consent of participants. Extraction can be at odds with the nurturing principles of community development – a practice which relies on safe and comfortable spaces where people can be vulnerable and find nourishment and connection through relationships. In other words, when there’s a person in the corner holding a camera, everyone gets uncomfortable.

If the process wasn’t enough of a hurdle, there’s also the question of what will eventually be done with the video that is made. It’s become second nature to throw everything you make on Youtube and Social Media, but when working in a community one needs to consider that anything on the internet is there forever. That means family, friends and potential employers of the people featured in the film might eventually see it.

In a sense, documentary subtracts while community development adds. So, how can both coexist ethically? The answer still needs to be worked out, but I’ve put together some recommendations based on my experience that I hope contribute to this debate.

  • Like any other aspect of community development, making videos should also be co-owned. The best examples of video making in a community are when the product is planned and executed by the community as opposed to just being imposed on them. Decide what’s going to happen together and trust that decision.
  • Clarify the objective of what you’re doing. Is the video meant to raise funds? Recruit supporters? Raise awareness of an issue or cause? The clearer on why you’re making the video, the less likely you are to intuitively make a trauma-trap.
  • Have a robust process of permission. Respect participants’ reservations about being on the video and create the necessary measures where, even if they do give consent, they’re also allowed to retract it later on and have their part in a given video removed.

I do think Herzog was right about how documentaries are made. Some of the best documentaries have kicked ‘the hornet’s nest’. But when it comes to community, what we are doing is more than documentary – it’s real connection. For this reason, our safety measures must be strong and provide an exciting playground for everyone involved – one that respects their privacy and emboldens the vulnerability that is necessary in order to make real art.

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