Discussion: Ethical Conundrums and the Filmmaker
Discussion: Six Gazes of the Ethics Machine
- Abé Mark Nornes
Discussion: Disaster Films and Ethics
Discussion led by Saito Ayako
Professor of Asian Cinema at the University of Michigan. Abé Mark Nornes has worked with YIDFF since 1990. At Yamagata, Nornes co-programmed Media Wars: Then & Now (1991), In Our Own Eyes / First Nations’ Moving Images (1993), and 7 Spectres—Transfigurations in Electronic Shadows (1995). He has written two books on Japanese documentary, Japanese Documentary Film: The Meiji Era through Hiroshima and Forest of Pressure: Ogawa Shinsuke and Postwar Japanese Documentary.
Professor of Art Studies at Meiji Gakuin University.Saito Ayako has written articles on film theory from psychoanalytic and feminist perspectives, on affect, and on Japanese cinema. She is co-editor / co-author of Film Actress: Wakao Ayako and Male Bonding, Asian Cinema: Homosocial Desire, and has edited Cinema, Body, Sexuality. Her articles have appeared in the anthologies Endless Night: Cinema and Psychoanalysis, Parallel Histories and Reclaiming the Archive: Feminism and Film History. Her recent publications include “The World Viewed by Wang Bing.”
Documentary filmmaker, theorist, and historian. Brian Winston began his career making documentaries for Granada TV, and won an Emmy Award for documentary screenwriting in 1985. His most recent film was A Boatload of Wild Irishmen on Robert Flaherty, directed by Mac Dara Ó Curraidhín. He teaches at the University of Lincoln, where he is the Lincoln Chair of Communications. Author of Claiming the Real II and many other books, he was one of the first to write on the subject of documentary and ethics.
Documentary’s Original Sin
A famous American 20th century New Yorker journalist, A.J. Liebling, once wrote about how difficult it was for a young reporter to realize that his (or her) great “story” was somebody else’s disastrous fire. And what applies to journalists also, in this regard, applies to documentary filmmakers. Our “great stories”—our subjects—can often be, if not disastrous then certainly less great for the people appearing in our films. The benefit to the filmmaker always tends to be greater than the benefit to the people whose lives are being documented, and sometimes exposure can have really bad effects for them.
This produces a basic ethical imbalance—this inequality of outcomes is documentary’s original sin. And it’s one that isn’t simply answered by glibly saying the filmmaker gives the subject a platform or that, simply, the public has a right to know. There are moral questions even if these claims are sustained. Moreover, in another twist of the tail, some people deserve to be exposed and “damaged” and that’s the point of the documentary—exposing corruption, say. So there are no easy answers but that doesn’t mean the questions raised by documentary ethics should not be debated.