Robert Flaherty’s Nanook of the North (1922) is often cited as the first real documentary, but by today’s standards it seems more like The Only Way is Essex or Real Housewives of New Jersey. Flaherty brought to the screen an original vision of Inuit life in the far north of Canada, a vivid contrast to the feature-length fictions and timid travelogues that dominated the cinemas of the 1920s. He spent several years filming, developing his negatives on site, dealing with all manner of technical and physical difficulties. It was a tour-de-force, and even in 2014 came seventh in a Sight and Sound poll of filmmakers asked to name the best ever documentaries.
But in making Nanook of the North, Flaherty violated almost all the ethical standards that guide today’s filmmakers. He made up a story and got his Inuit subjects to act it out. He ignored their current situation in favour of a romanticised idea of their past, asking them to reconstruct the hunting techniques of their grandfathers. He made them appear to be ignorant of the modern world for comic effect. He fathered a child with one of the women he was working with. He took all the acclaim and abandoned the community (and his son) to their fate, which, according to Melanie McGrath’s excellent book The Long Exile, was a particularly unpleasant tale of forced relocation and deprivation.
Today’s documentary filmmakers are concerned with showing the truth of a situation, however they conceive it. Many certainly do use reconstructions, but within tightly controlled limits. They are held to account for the methods they use to obtain their footage and the permission to include it into a film. They have to be concerned about the public reaction to their subjects and often offer some kind of ‘after-sales service’ in the form of continued support. So how, in less than a century, have the ethics of documentary changed so fundamentally?
Flaherty was doing something new; there were no standards to guide him. He had found it difficult to find finance, and at one stage he accidentally destroyed almost all his footage. He wanted to tell a tale of human endurance in the face of hostile nature to audiences who regarded the Inuit as scarcely human, if they even knew who they were. He was working in a commercial cinema environment, before television and public service broadcasting, before public outcries about documentary ethics, before digital technologies, before even sync sound recording. After Nanook, documentary existed; but Nanook was scarcely a model that anyone could follow.
The immediate future for documentary lay in the hands of filmmakers whose motives were more socially enlightened and reformist. The British documentary movement, the American filmmakers working for the New Deal administration, even the Soviet documentarians like Esfir Shub, were all concerned with portraying the problems of ordinary people. They were all paid directly by the state or by large corporations to do so. Many were acutely aware of the ethical problems that this involved, which they solved by appealing to a sense of personal honesty. To be a true documentary filmmaker was to be truthful about their subjects and what they saw, and then to communicate this as powerfully as possible. So they used a poetic treatment of reality underpinned by an ethic of personal responsibility.
The documentary filmmakers of the 1930s also made extensive use of reconstructions. Unlike Flaherty’s reconstructions of a past that existed only in hearsay, these reconstructions were underpinned by personal observation and extensive research. Their cameras and sound equipment were limited in what they could do in the everyday world, but these documentarians overcame these limitations by documenting, by meticulous note-taking so that they could prove the truthfulness of their reconstructions. Everything in their films had to be based on concrete evidence. So Humphrey Jennings’ groundbreaking Fires Were Started (aka I was A Fireman) from 1943 used real firemen to play fictional firemen in a story fashioned from incidents which had happened in the previous two years. At points, the film is far less clear than were contemporary fiction films, simply because the film respects researched facts rather than the demands of smooth storytelling. So Flaherty’s inheritors took documentary in the direction that we recognise today: filmmaking from reality whose fundamental ethics are based on the honesty of the filmmaker as the broker in the process of putting reality on the screen.
At the same time, many of these filmmakers had a social purpose. By showing and interpreting the world in an honest way, they aimed to change it. Jennings’ film is explicitly wartime propaganda, emphasising the business-like heroism of firemen during the London Blitz. There is an obvious potential for conflict between the two aims of honesty and promoting social change, and the history of documentary since the 1930s is in many ways the history of successive attempts to reconcile them.
Television has been a crucial broker in this process, especially in Europe. Documentaries found their natural home on TV, whereas in cinema they had long been marginalised by feature length fiction films. In some countries, particularly the Netherlands and Scandinavia, documentary maintained a steady presence in cinemas. There were even isolated examples of socially critical feature film documentaries in US cinemas, particularly Barbara Kopple’s Academy Award winning Harlan County, USA in 1976. But from the 1950s until comparatively recently, it was television documentaries which were the main focus of arguments about the ethics of filming, and the battles over who had the power to show what.
By the end of the 1950s, television documentaries had settled into a public service television mode. Public service documentaries aimed to enlighten and educate their viewers, showing and explaining as they went. Until the recent proliferation of channels, they were also required to be balanced rather than opinionated, much to the frustration of those filmmakers who wanted to change the world rather than explain it. Even then, scrupulous balance occasionally caused problems for broadcasters. Paul Hamann’s 1985 BBC film Real Lives: At the Edge of the Union was made at the height of the Troubles in Northern Ireland, soon after a wave of bombings on the UK mainland. It gave exactly equal airtime to two members of the Northern Irish Assembly: the republican Martin McGuinness (widely suspected of being a member of the IRA) and the staunch unionist Gregory Campbell. Both were allowed to express their views unchallenged. The Thatcher government wanted to ban the film, causing an internal crisis as the BBC is not meant to be censored by the British government. The film was delayed for two months but eventually shown, and just 30 people complained that it lacked the required balance. However, the damage was done within the BBC, and, thirty years on, Real Lives is still seen as the moment when the BBC began to avoid political controversies in its documentary output.
In its observational approach to the two contrasting politicians, Real Lives also shows how much documentary filmmaking had changed since the 1940s. Meticulously researched reconstruction was no longer the dominant form: lightweight equipment meant that filmmakers could follow action as it happened. Early in the 1960s several companies developed lightweight 16mm cameras which could be used with crystal sync tape sound recording. This equipment answered the desire of documentarians to use their cameras rather than their notebooks to observe the world, playing into the common belief that “the camera cannot lie”. Half a century later, this belief has proved simplistic for all kinds of reasons. But it revolutionised what documentary could do, the places it could go to, and the intimacy of portrayal that it could provide. Observational documentary was born, but to call it ‘fly on the wall’ was an overstatement: the technique still required a minimum of two or three filmers in the room, and it also had other unintended consequences which quickly became clear. In the early 1970s, two series were made in the US and UK which showed the everyday lives of a family. They both aimed to observe an interesting and relatively typical family for several weeks of their lives, by following them with minimally invasive crews. Unlike earlier TV documentaries, there was no agenda, no social purpose beyond that of observing everyday life.
Both series demonstrated the new ethical problems that were emerging as a result of the observational technique. The Loud family in the US An American Family (1973) and the Wilkins in the UK The Family (1974) became celebrities. Paul Watson’s UK series intensified the problems by showing events just a week or so after they had happened, so by the middle of the series the family were using the programmes to respond to press and public comments about them. Mrs Wilkins briefly had a newspaper column to express her trenchant views. Their daughter moved forward the date of her wedding so it could feature in the last episode. The Wilkins and the Louds performed for the camera (some family members being more willing than others). They spontaneously altered their lives to accommodate the realities of the demands of television viewers as they saw them. Documentary had overcome the problems of reconstruction only to encounter a new set of difficulties: ‘performance for the camera’, of course, but also that of exploitation of ordinary people. The subsequent lives of both the Louds and the Wilkins seem to bear this out, with the families breaking up under the strain of public scrutiny. Indeed, Pat Loud asked her husband for a divorce on screen during the series.
Both series were enormously popular; the technique was too important to abandon. So filmmakers now had a new responsibility in relation to their subjects, to minimise the level of exploitation involved in filming by being as straight as possible in their dealings with their subjects. This is endlessly difficult in practice as the subjects of the most engaging documentaries are often those whose lives are complicated. They often come from a different social background to that of filmmakers and find it difficult to engage with the mechanisms of power, which include broadcasting. As Brian Winston once brutally put it, “concentrates on the victims of society”.
Regularly, documentaries face the challenge that they are exploitative. In the decades since The Family, Paul Watson has continued to court this accusation, filming people declining into Alzheimer’s disease, alcoholics in the advanced stages of addiction (Rain in My Heart), bigoted middle class people discussing politics and social issues in The Dinner Party, and even upper class men on an anarchic Fishing Party. In each case, however, Watson has proved to have been scrupulous in his dealings. The exaggerated characters of The Fishing Party had, amazingly, offered themselves as a suitable subject for the BBC to film. The four people featured in Rain in My Heart are all too aware of that they are being filmed as a warning to others. Watson appears occasionally in the film debating with himself, and the viewer, about the key ethical issues raised by his film. Is he is exploiting his subjects? Does his sympathetic presence and the promise of TV exposure encourage them to exaggerate their behaviour? Should his duty as a human being outweigh that of the observational filmmaker: whether he should intervene to stop the self-harm that his camera is witnessing? We see him plead with his subjects, accuse them of showing off, and at one moment he ‘accidentally’ knocks over a bottle that one is about to consume. Watson’s engagement with the families of his subjects did not end with the transmission of the documentary. He continued to offer his help as they coped with their subsequent lives.
In Rain in My Heart, Watson also has some sour comments about reality TV, then in its early stages, as he finds it more and more difficult to get cooperation from hospital administrators in his valuable project. The late 1990s saw a growing suspicion of documentary because of the ethical decisions made in both reality TV and documentary. The most outrageous was the ITV documentary The Connection for the prestigious Network First series. Filmmaker Marc de Beaufort claimed to have filmed the entire journey of a Columbian drugs ‘mule’ as he ingested cocaine-filled condoms and travelled to London. A striking interview in a secret location with one of the key members of the Cali drugs cartel rounded off this dramatic film. And dramatic it indeed was. De Beaufort had staged most of the key sequences (the secret interview location was his own hotel room; the interviewee a carpark attendant). Once exposed by the Guardian newspaper, several executives were disgraced, and the broadcaster fined several million pounds. It was a low point for TV documentary: de Beaufort had systematically broken the bond of trust between filmmaker and the TV audience.
At the same time, reconstruction was making a surreptitious comeback. The dramatic demands of reality TV (merging observational documentary techniques with entertainment storytelling) required greater use of reconstruction and even improvisation by its characters. The amateur dramatics of Made in Chelsea or The Only Way is Essex were still some way off, but the subjects of ‘docusoaps’ (as reality TV was then known) were encouraged to ‘big themselves up’ as characters, and to stage events in various ways. One character in Driving School was shown waking her husband in the middle of the night with her anxieties about her forthcoming ordeal. Viewers protested; the Daily Mail protested. It was utterly implausible that the crew should have been waiting quietly in their bedroom in case they had a middle-of-the-night conversation. The production team had had no qualms about asking the couple to reconstruct the incident when they reported it. However, many viewers felt differently. This vividly shows the expectations of truthfulness that then prevailed, and the sense of outrage when an emerging genre hybrid was making documentary-like claims.
Then a further case emerged: a Channel 4 documentary entitled Daddy’s Girl was extensively trailed in the week before broadcast. The subject was fascinating: a young woman whose father was vehemently opposed to her proposed marriage, and all parties had consented to appear (father, daughter and intended husband), expressing their opinions in a forthright manner. Then the real father contacted Channel 4, demanding to know why someone was impersonating him; not just anyone, it emerged, but his daughter’s intended husband, a man of whom he utterly disapproved. The entire production team had been hoodwinked by Stuart Smith and Vitoria Greetham, with Smith getting a mate to pretend to be Greetham’s fiancé while he impersonated her father. The couple became celebrities briefly, accused on a TV chat show by Angela Rippon of lies and deception. They seemed somewhat taken aback by this accusation as they saw the whole thing as a “being creative” or “being economical with the truth”. For them it was perhaps; but for anyone concerned about the ethics of documentary, it was another instance of untrustworthiness.
Clearly an ethical shift was taking place. The values that had underpinned the observational documentary were crumbling: people were no longer content with ‘being themselves and ignoring the camera’, and filmmakers were under all kinds of pressure to justify themselves and their methods: ‘trust me’ was no longer enough of a guarantee. In the same period in the US, filmmakers were using the new freedom of the premium subscription TV channel HBO to make films that addressed exactly these issues. Errol Morris’s The Thin Blue Line (1989)forensically examined the naïve belief in the ‘eye witness’ to demonstrate the multitude of small inconsistencies that lead to a wrongful conviction for murder. Some witnesses misremembered; some saw events through a veil of prejudice; others simply lied. The pace of Morris’s film is utterly unlike that of a TV documentary, and it requires concentration from its viewers. He reconstructs the incident of a shooting several time over, using big close-ups of details, a technique widely used since for reconstructions in documentaries. But each of his sequences are subtly different, bringing out the inconsistencies of the eye witness accounts. It is still a shock for viewers when they realise that no two reconstruction sequences are the same.
By the beginning of this century, traditional documentary approaches were consistently under fire as a result of both the television scandals and the thoroughgoing interrogation of its fundamental beliefs in documentaries like Morris’s. At the same time, the viewers themselves began ‘self-documenting’, using newly available cheap video technology, video-enabled mobile devices and social media. Documentary suddenly seemed to be everywhere, used and abused, questioned and taken for granted. So the current situation is complicated. The genre is diverging into two distinctive genres. On the one side are documentary films, often feature length, which invent styles that are appropriate to their particular subject and the precise circumstances of production. On the other are the popular documentary forms which have taken a different direction towards various genre hybrids and reality TV formats. On an ethical level, they face the same kinds of problems, made more acute by the fact that those problems are now subjects of general interest. In the past, ethical problems were arcane issues that filmmakers discussed between themselves. Now that virtually everyone watching documentary has themselves wielded a camera or had ambivalent feelings about being filmed, documentary ethics has become something that everyone worries about. TV documentary viewers now criticise the ethical decisions made by filmmakers using the evidence that they find in the films.
There have been several responses to this new situation. Generally, documentaries became more personal. Filmmakers put themselves into their films to show their own fallibility, to reveal the relationships they have with their subjects. Nick Broomfield puts a comedy version of himself into his films (as a hapless sound recordist), making the circumstances of filming take centre stage. A Broomfield documentary is usually the story of a plucky film crew trying – and usually failing – to get their story. The screen character Nick Broomfield is puzzled and inept, and his subjects reveal themselves essentially because they can’t really believe that this is anything other than a student film. The Broomfield persona is very different from that of Michael Moore. Moore is the indignant seeker of truth, utterly sure of himself and the righteousness of his cause: he’s the noisy new version of the now discredited line ‘trust me, I’m a documentary filmmaker’. So his immensely popular feature films have been extensively criticised by, among others, David T. Hardy and Jason Clarke who have spent long hours picking holes in his films. Every elision of time or events for narrative convenience has been ruthlessly pressed into service to prove that Michael Moore is a Big Fat Stupid White Man (Harpercollins 2005). Quite apart from showing the level of cheap abuse that is often heaped on documentary filmmakers, this also brings into relief the essentially old-fashioned nature of Moore’s filmmaking. Though he is all over his films, as both voice and physical presence, often inciting action, his films are not really subjective. He continues to insist that he offers an objective investigation of the truth rather than a personal reflection on a social problem.
Most documentary filmmakers have now developed a more conversational style, even when they remain behind the camera. This has been helped by new lightweight equipment that enables the filmer to maintain eye contact with their subject even whilst filming. Even as committed an observational filmmaker as Kim Longinotto allows the warmth of her relationship with her subjects to shine through clearly in a film like Rough Aunties (2008). In documentaries like this, it is clear why the participants have agreed to be filmed. Some want publicity for their cause or their beliefs; others want to be heard; still others are willing, if not eager, to use the process of filmmaking as a kind of therapy. These documentaries have recast the form as one that shows the truth of a particular interaction, that of filming. The films show the reality of a relationship that the filmmaker and their subjects embark upon together. In those circumstances, there are many who will agree to take part.
But not all television documentary is like this, by any means. One development has eliminated the traditional filmmaker almost entirely. Series like Educating Essex and 24 Hours in A&E use a ‘fixed rig’, a large number of remote controlled cameras installed within a building (a school, a hospital) where something interesting is bound to happen. The people know they are being filmed, they can withhold their permission if they like (hence all the blurred out faces), but there is no interaction between the filmers and the filmed. Instead of a camera crew, there is a truck or portakabin somewhere nearby where the editorial crew are waiting to record the output from the relevant cameras when it looks as though an interesting incident or story is about to develop. On the face of it, this might seem like the reassertion of old-fashioned observation. However, the results are highly artificial due in part to the fixed positioning of the cameras, and in part to the very heavily editorialised presentation of the stories. It is highly effective TV as a result, but most of the time we are watching fragments of an event, the significance of which we have to be told in voice-over rather than observe for ourselves.
Documentary has now become as complex and multifaceted as the people it films. There are some who, a bit like Victoria Greetham and Stuart Smith, regard the whole thing as the opportunity to have a laugh. That is one of the key characteristics of reality TV. The most extreme end of that genre is indeed people having laugh: whether celebrities like The Osbournes and Keeping Up With the Kardashians or the engaging amateur dramatics of The Only Way is Essex. In all these cases, the ‘documentary’ elements are limited to the work of the film crews who have to follow actions improvised on the basis of a pre-arranged and agreed script. Mainstream reality TV series, however, are formulaic rather than scripted. They sweep up a public that regards itself as street-wise about filmmaking into projects where all sides acknowledge that the performed selves bear only a passing relationship with the private selves. Usually, these are formats in which real people are offered a challenge of some kind, and are expected to respond with outsized versions of their usual behaviours. The arch, teasing voice-over of a series like Come Dine With Me makes this abundantly clear. Yet even in this reality TV end of the documentary business, the fundamental ethical considerations refuse to go away. If anything, they are intensified by the squeeze on programming costs and industrial production line processes under which these series are now made.
It is still possible for documentaries to address big social issues, of course. But here, too, the ethical problems seems to have become more rather than less difficult. In 2013, Channel 4 offered an insight into a street where, it was claimed, most of the inhabitants lived on benefits. They called it Benefits Street in the end, though this was not the working title under which the subjects knew it. The series became the focus for a public debate, and the participants were totally unprepared for the media blizzard that followed. Benefits Street was accused of ‘poverty porn’, and a public meeting of 100 people from James Turner Street in Birmingham (the programme made no attempt an anonymity) have said that they have been ‘misrepresented’. They were offered a live hour-long debate after the final show. The creative director of Love, Keiran Smith, defended the ways in which the participants were recruited by the filmers. He was evasive about whether they were told that the series would concentrate on benefits, and stressed that the series dealt with other themes, and emphasised solidarity in the face of hardship. But were they prepared for what might happen when they appeared on TV, any more than the Wilkins family were back in 1984? Benefits Street featured people who experienced difficulties in thinking through the consequences of their actions even within the space of their own lives. So how could they think through the consequences of their own media exposure, even if they were avid consumers of such TV shows themselves? Many of the participants seemed to be excluded from the digital revolution that has enabled the widespread public scepticism about the making of documentaries. If they had known what would happen, then most of them would probably have refused to participate. Those that made it through the experience were the exhibitionists and the media-savvy, with ‘White Dee’ becoming, like Mrs Wilkins thirty years before her, a minor media celebrity and commentator on the waywardness of the socially marginalised.
There is another question that lingers around Benefits Street. What was offered back to the community? Everyone else was happy: Channel 4 had a success with an exceptional audience of over 5 million viewers. Columnists filled columns, politicians justified policies. But the street itself was offered no help, no initiatives to improve its environment, no training in creating a better life, no reward for being pilloried. No resources were available, apparently, and none were asked for. In the end, there remains one simple question that participants can and should ask. It is difficult for a filmmaker to answer because it is weighed down with many ethical uncertainties that lie at the heart of the documentary project. It is also the question that can establish whether the two sides of the documentary process, the filmers and the filmed, can trust each other. The question is “what’s in it for me?”
John Ellis is a former documentary producer and professor at Royal Holloway University of London He is the author of Documentary, Witness and Self-revelation (Routledge 2012)