Documentary and Bill Nicholls

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Documentary Film Prompts

1)The means and criteria of an ethical documentary film can be somewhat complicated and blurred because of the simple fact that it deals with the issue of ethics. Ethics concerns itself with how moral values are determined and how a moral outcome can be achieved. Why ethics is a key issue in documentary film is a question that Nichols ponders and addresses. Non-fiction films, or social representations as Nichols calls them, engage the world by representing. Documentary film pushes a certain interpretation or perspective of how the world is. Documentaries engage the audience in an argument or description that helps us to see the world in a new light. If you ask a normal individual walking down the street about what makes a film ethical, they would most likely state that it ought to be truthful and not lie. This is a very common, and most importantly, accurate answer when it comes to this issue. Things are unfortunately not so simple especially when you talk about an art medium, such as documentary, that involves many creative and technical elements that goes into its creation.

There are really two dimensions when speaking about ethics in regards to documentary film. The first aspect of ethics deals with the filmmaker’s actions regarding the outside world, such as his treatment of individuals and subjects, the influences placed upon the filmmaker from outside forces, and the re-creation and of physical scenes and sets. The second aspect of ethics in documentary has to do with the filmmaker’s actions behind the camera such as editing, voice-over commentary, and the intention of the filmmaker. This “creative treatment of actuality” is an area where much of the debate rests.

Documentary films, in Nichols view, “represent the views of individuals, groups and institutions” (5). In fiction films, for examples, actors are hired and paid to do very specific actions and dialogue for the director, but this is not the case in non-fiction. In documentary, the subjects are “social actors” that are acting like themselves and the filmmaker is only there to capture these natural events. The subjects are not supposed to act the way the filmmaker sees fit. One can argue that even nonfiction film has elements of fiction because the existence of the camera changes the behavior of the individuals. This might be true, but only to an extent in the sense that non-fiction films are not complete fabrications in relation to the actions and speech of the subjects.

Nichols notes that ethics are presented to minimize harmful effects reaching beyond the debate between the indexical relationship between a picture and the physical actuality represented in that picture. Ethics are there to prevent harm that already existing laws do not protect against. The criteria for ethical films have to do with the relationship between the subjects and the filmmaker, as well as the audience. This relationship between subject, filmmaker, and audience is the main focus for Nichols and serves as the basis for his arguments. This is where the idea of “informed consent” comes into the picture. To what extend ought the participants of the documentary be aware of the plans, intentions, and possible consequences on their lives in regards to the film being made? To what extent is it okay for the filmmaker to intrude on someone’s life? Informed consent is letting the subject know what it is the filmmaker is doing and planning to do in regards to his/her film. Nichols seems to believe that this is the central issue in regards to ethics in documentary, and I agree with him. This issue clearly comes up in both Roger and Me and Stevie. This issue was very prevalent, at least in my opinion, in Stevie. Steven James goes back to a rural town in Illinois in order to meet up with an old friend he had mentored many years prior. The sexual molestation charges that come about regarding Stephen Fielding bring about many concerns regarding informed...
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