Documentary Ethics: The Varying Levels of Honesty

Stephen Jiron

The Paw Print

I was able to attend Danny Ledonne’s lecture on Documentary Ethics. His Presentation was three fold. The first section introduced the definition of a documentary and the purpose. So let me just define it really quickly: a documentary is a movie television or radio program that provides a factual record. A documentary is also a great way to make a statement. And the impact of a documentary can be found mainly on the subject you cover. Being that a documentary is still a story, there is still the element that the filmmaker has to make, form, fit, or function. He still needs his film to have a protagonist, an antagonist, a beginning middle and end, and a conflict. It is also a for profit industry; in that respect, it’s akin to any other entertainment media you consume. That said it can be hard to make a documentary that records the event but is also entertaining.  That is where the talk really comes into play. I caught up with Professor Ledonne after his lecture and asked him about the tug of war between educational and entertaining documentaries. And he said, “I don’t think that it has to be a false choice between something that’s educational and documentary in nature and being entertaining… there is something entertaining about learning something” he then put the responsibility of this balancing act squarely on the editor, “You make every edit with a number of questions on your mind, so if you make a cut solely because it’s entertaining then you are doing your audience a disservice.”

The second portion was presenting a few documentaries that had dishonesty in one way or another. He covered Nanook of the North, which faked a few things: a walrus hunt, the building of an igloo, Nanook’s interaction with the Westerners and even Nanook, when the man’s real name was Allakariallak. Wild Wilderness a Disney film that seemingly created the myth that lemmings commit mass suicide when the film makers were pushing the animals from the cliff. Borat created a false pretense under which it obtained a lot of its interviews, Crude had 500 hours of the footage subpoenaed which it would seem made the film unbalanced and biased. Fahrenheit 9/11 faced quite a bit of lawsuits and criticism. Bush supporters, like Ed Koch, just calling it propaganda. Covering a subject like this it would be really easy to seem as though you are standing on a soapbox and preaching down to all who would listen. But Professor Ledonne chose to show some examples to prove that even he was not immune to the ethical problems that film makers face. I won’t repeat how he gave in, but I will say it was refreshing to see that kind of honesty.

There was a small Q &A, and Professor Ledonne answered some questions. One attendant asked I think a very good question: With varying levels of honesty in a documentary will there ever be a rating system? “This is a popular medium designed for mass consumption. So it doesn’t have a lot of the academic rigors that we might expect in our education where there is a peer review process.” He went on to say, “The only extent we ever had of that is the court system which is generally not interested in regulating speech to that degree. Almost no work is enjoined no matter how many people sue Michael Moor or Borat or whoever.” With documentaries being non-fiction by definition and with some of these documentaries giving in to the for profit side of filmmaking, I asked Professor Ledonne, Is the standard documentary dead? “I think it’s more alive than it ever has been…I think what’s more challenging is making a living doing it,” he said, “ because if you spend your livelihood  making documentaries and  that era is starting to shift away…to an era of citizen journalism where everyone is recording everything” he elaborated. I think a big takeaway from the talk is that while we need not just completely distrust everything. I think it’s most important that we keep our eyes open and with media, just as with food, be critical with what we consume. is powered by WordPress µ | Spam prevention powered by Akismet