ETHICS IN INDEPENDENT FILMS & DOCUMENTARIES

Audiences around the world, always tend to complain and criticize in the worst possible way the real content of independent films and documentaries. They either like them or hate them. There is really no in between when it comes to a big audience. This is an issue of perspective that up until this point in time has no and will never have a perfect solution. The reason is quite simple, every thinking mind is a different world. Humans perceive and digest the idea of independent filmmaking and documentaries in a very different way that they do massive blockbuster films with recognized artists. The audience is used to pre-selecting films in the big screen with well known iconic figures like Tom Cruise, Nicole Kidman and Jack Nicholson, just to name a few; in massive blockbusters like Mission Impossible, Batman and The Others. As soon as an independent film that is not sponsored by a huge film studio like The Warner Brothers or Paramount Pictures comes out with an unknown cast, the audience assumes it must be bad quality and often criticizes the plot.

Very often the theme of an Independent Film can be so controversial and unusual, like the main plot of  the 1999 American independent romantic drama film “Boys Don’t Cry,” starring Hillary Swank, which generated a bad reaction among the public and on the other hand was admired and raved by critics worldwide and recognized in different award shows like The Academy Awards, Golden Globes and the SAG Awards. The reality is the issue of the audience not having an instant connection or attraction for these type of films and has generated an ongoing issue for many years. The main key factor is what I call “A Culture Shock,” that results in a complete panic of the audience not wanting to accept a reality that is portrayed in a film or documentary.

Lets’s go back for instance to my example of the critically acclaimed independent film Boys Don’t Cry, starring Hillary Swank. Not only the film is based on a true story, but also won Swank’s her first Oscar for best actress in a leading role. Upon the release of the film, it did not do to well as a massive hit. The public was offended and reacted extremely angry due to the nature and content of the feature. The film is based on a transgender identity crisis that is facing Teena Brandon played by Hillary Swank. Teena, is a woman who in reality feels, acts and dresses up like a man. Throughout the development of the story we see how she falls in love with Lana played by actress Chloe Sevigny and also how she interacts with Lana’s family while pretending to be Brandon. Sadly, at the end of the film Teena, is beaten, raped and murdered by his male acquaintances after they discover she is transgender. The film was directed and written by Kimberly Peirce.

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Boys Don’t Cry

Critics worldwide appreciated this independent film and stated it was one of the best films of the year. Since the film was rated R; it created a lot of controversy because it engages in scenes of sexual content, violence and mature subjects. This caused many manifestations of different conservative groups who stated the film was promoting homosexual relationships when in reality the film was telling a true story. The film finally did well at the box office after it won international awards and was well received by critics. The original budget was two million at the time of released and it earned over 11.5 million at the box office. Without a doubt this proves how the masses can be controlled and altered by the idea of percepetion. The film industry plays a huge game in manipulation now days. Acceptance of a film is the one factor that can not be changed. This human reaction from the audience towards independent films becomes a behaviour of dislike and sometimes hateful. This issue has no alternate solution, since it is impossible to brainwash an entire nation to follow and like a film. however, it can be controlled at some point with the help of the media, film reviews, awards and propaganda.

Concerns about documentary ethics are not new, but they have intensified over the past several years in response to changes in the industry. Changes like the use of Video Journalism in live documentaries like “Fahrenheit 911” and “Bowling for Columbine,” both directed by Canadian Filmmaker Michael Moore. In Fahrenheit 911, Moore exposes the United States government to the so called conspiracy behind the attacks of the twin towers on September 11th, 2001. Even though the documentary won best film at the Cannes Film Festival, it was not well received by the American audience. Government agencies in the United States blamed Michael Moore for using illegal statements during the creation of the documentary.

Moore later on stated that all the information gathered by the crew and publicists was legit and was never altered while the documentary was shot. Fahrenheit 911, was so controversial because it opened the viewer’s mind to a reality that was kept in secret by the American government for a while. The reality we think we see when we watch the news at home it’s almost often altered and what we think is real very often is not. The Media, Journalists and Broadcasters are often told what to say as a widespread mind control pyramid we live in. Meaning behind the media there is always someone who may alter the actual information, images and the way this is presented to the world. Do not be surprised if one day you are watching the news regarding an important matter in the Middle East and all the images you see have been already altered in Photoshop and the videos were somehow recreated in Flash. The truth is reality hurts and no one is ready to accept it. We live in denial day by day. Our only escape is to jump into a fantasy world in a movie theatre that takes us out of this messed up world we live in. Only when this reality is thrown in front of you, you become more aggressive and the only one to blame is the film itself.

Documentary filmmakers had become widely respected media makers, recognized as independent voices at a time of a falling public. This is a massive changed we have seen so far. While the widespread phenomena of hating independent films increases, the reality is that these filmmakers are finding ways to get more recognition from the critics and the press. Leading to confidence in mainstream media and in the integrity of the political process. At the same time, documentary television production is highly accelerating to fill the need for quality programming in the ever expanding screen time, generating popular and driven programs. The growth of commercial opportunities and the prominence of politics as a documentary subject also produces tensions. Documentary filmmakers, whether they were producing histories for public television, nature programs for cable, or independent political documentaries, found themselves facing not only economic pressure but also close scrutiny for the ethics of their practices.

This been said, other documentaries have also experienced controversies within the audience. Did Mighty Times: The Children’s March misrepresented civil rights history through the use of both fabricated and repurposed archival evidence? Should films such as Ghosts of Abu Ghraib and Standard Operating Procedure, feature images that further embarrass and humiliate their subjects? All these questions have risen upon the release of these documentaries and are normally questioned by the audience. Many feel like the ethics of the film either cross the line or covered tabu subjects that perhaps the world is not prepared to hear about. Sometimes filmmakers are constrained by the fear that openly discussing ethical issues will expose them to risk of censure or may jeopardize the next job. The ethical conflicts put in motion by these features of a filmmaker’s embattled truth teller identity are, ironically for a truth telling community, unable to be widely shared or even publicly discussed in most individual cases.

I can come to the conclusion that filmmakers are drawn into criticism of their peers, while lacking common standards of reference. Unlike Journalism and Communications, documentary filmmaking has largely been an individual, freelance effort. Documentary filmmakers typically are small business owners, selling their work to a range of distributors, mostly in television or independent studios. Individual filmmakers may develop concurrent projects with and for a range of television networks, from PBS to the Food Channel. Some of these networks may ask filmmakers to observe standards practices, and/or ethics derived from Print Journalism and Broadcast news and develop them in conjunction with Journalism programs. For the most part, however, when it comes to standards and ethics, documentary filmmakers have largely depended on individual judgment, guidance from executives, and occasional conversations at film festivals and of course the love and hate relationship they get from the public around the world.

Written by Felipe Medina for the Readings the Arts Acrooss the Disciplines course at Concordia University in Montreal.

Works Cited

Cooper, Brenda. Boys Don’t Cry and Female Masculinity: Reclaiming a Life and Dismantling the Politics of Normative Heterosexuality. Critical Studies in Media Communication. 2002. Pages 44–63. Print.

Black, Jay and Ralph Barney. The Case against Mass Media Codes of Ethics. Paper presented at the Annual Meeting of the Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communi cation. 1985. page 15. Print.

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