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UBC Theses and Dissertations

Ethics in documentary filmmaking : an anthropological perspective Hartzell, Lea Claire


Making a documentary film that features human beings as subjects requires extensive thought about the potential impact on the actual lives of people. Similarly, the pursuit of anthropological knowledge via social science research also affects individuals and communities. Along with this awesome power that documentary filmmaking and anthropological research have to change peoples' lives, comes a heavy responsibility to use this power in an ethical way. By examining the cross-sections between documentary filmmaking and anthropological research, I have found several intersections of ethical considerations that seem pertinent to both fields. The main ethical considerations I have found to be common to both documentary filmmaking and anthropology can be classified into four major categories. They are (1) the intention of the filmmaker/researcher, (2) the filmmaker/researcher's relationship with her subjects, (3) the various responsibilities of the filmmaker/researcher, and (4) how the filmmaker/researcher presents herself, her work, and the subjects to an audience. In the first part of this thesis, I provide a review of some of the recent literature from anthropology and visual communication to establish a theoretical background based in visual anthropology. In the second part, I apply the discussed theoretical concerns to practical examples of ethical questions that specific documentary filmmakers have faced. The particular instances that I draw upon come from a recent public forum and panel debate on the topic of "Ethics in Documentary Filmmaking" held in Vancouver B.C. on March 26,2002, sponsored by the Canadian Independent Film Caucus (CIFC). The three filmmakers from the panel that I discuss are Nettie Wild, Mark Achbar, and David Paperny. In the name of reflexivity, I also include a short discussion of some ethical concerns relating to my own documentary videos. I conclude this thesis with a summary discussion of ethics in documentary filmmaking. Perhaps as long as a filmmaker or researcher thinks about the ethics of her actions while she is carrying out her project, she is acting in an ethical way. Thoughtfulness and reflection bring about conscious actions, whereas the act of following strict guidelines often leads to robotic, mindless behaviour. Ultimately, it is the filmmaker who must consider each ethical issue individually and make decisions based on the specific circumstances of her project.

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