Documentary has no established ethical guidelines and the nature of the form—visual, artistic and often implicit in meaning—does not lend itself to rules that are universally applicable. Many filmmakers argue that ethical decisions must be made on an ad hoc case-by-case basis.
This was the conclusion of a report from the American University Center for Social Media, based on a series of 45 anonymous long-form interviews. In the absence of professional guidelines, they investigated the ethical challenges that individual filmmakers face.
Filmmakers may spend years with the people in their stories. They may become close friends with the subjects of their films, be obliged to help this person and in doing so, interfere with their story. Protecting the subjects of a documentary means protecting their dignity and representing them honestly. The subjects of documentaries don’t grant interviews, they give the filmmaker access to their whole lives, for extended periods of time. If this trust were to be breached, fewer people would be willing to participate. Filmmakers may decide to remove scenes where their subjects are exposed in an unflattering way and many filmmakers share decision-making choices or let the subjects evaluate the film before it is released.
Watch: Wilson Lee discuss the importance of tone and who is making the documentary within the ethics of his documentary.
According to the surveyed filmmakers the ethics of documentary are: do no harm, protect the vulnerable and honor the viewer’s trust. Truth is paramount, both to the subjects of the documentary and to the audience. Nichols proposes that ethics must be considered in relation to the power that the filmmaker holds relative to the subject. If a journalist is representing someone who does not have access to other means of representation, that increases a filmmaker’s duty of care because of the increased risk to the subject of misrepresentation, exploitation and abuse.
In the case of Alice and Princess, Alice had the power to represent herself. She was an advocate for her child well before the filmmakers met her. She was also obviously dedicated to the child and doing what she could to help her recover from the trauma and reduce the stigma around rape.