Documentaries are supposed to represent the truth. But who decides what the truth is exactly? Patricia Aufderheide, professor and documentarian, explains a new effort to interview documentary filmmakers anonymously about their ethical lapses. She hopes that by understanding the extent of the problem the documentary community can come to some consensus on where the truth lies.
BOB GARFIELD: That’s the sound of the film Winged Migration, a documentary that followed migratory birds. The film would lead you to believe that we were seeing those birds in the wild but, despite the title and the footage, all is not as it seems to be.
[HONK] We'll be returning to that a little later. These are fertile times for documentaries. They've exploded onto screens, both large and small, and mostly we trust documentaries to portray, more or less, the truth. But who ensures that films hew close to the reality they claim to depict? Right now it’s individual filmmakers working alone, without clear guidelines and with only their consciences as their guides. Patricia Aufderheide, a professor at American University’s Center for Social Media, says this approach leads to a kind of slippery slope.
PATRICIA AUFDERHEIDE: When the civil rights documentary Mighty Times was produced, there was a whole segment of supposedly archival footage that was actually reenacted. There’s a recent film called Bananas about the Dole Company’s poor treatment of workers in Guatemala, and one of the lead characters in there turns out to not be what he claimed to be and to have given erroneous information.
BOB GARFIELD: When the ethical breaches came to light, they caused minor scandals in the documentary world, and the suspicion that there had to be many more such ethical breaches has spooked the documentary community into creating its own ethical standards and practices. First step, Aufderheide and two other colleagues interviewed 45 doc filmmakers anonymously in order to find out just how gray the gray areas actually are. It turns out they were very, very, very gray.
PATRICIA AUFDERHEIDE: On a nature shoot, the cable company in question had given the crew a very short amount of time to film a predator capturing prey. And the prey in question was a rabbit, and unbeknownst to the director the animal wrangler had actually broken the leg of a rabbit in order to let the, the predator capture it. And they had one more shot to do. It’s getting dusk. And the wrangler then turns to the director and says, do you want me to break the leg of this one, too? [LAUGHS] And the director suddenly has to make a choice and, with some great soul-searching, says, yeah, go ahead. One filmmaker who was dealing with a subject whose family had all died and he didn't have any family photographs, the filmmaker went to a flea market, found some [LAUGHS] old photographs of some other family that was from the right era and the right demographic and just slotted them in. And he said, I'm sure 99 percent of the people who watched that movie thought that that was his family, and I'm not going to disabuse them, and I don't think it makes any real difference.
BOB GARFIELD: I was shocked, I mean, shocked, shocked, shocked, to look at your study and see the examples of the way filmmakers play fast and loose with the truth, in order to tell what they think is a larger story. Do they really think that telling small lies is all right if it serves a larger truth?
PATRICIA AUFDERHEIDE: You are never simply delivering it to people unfiltered. You always have to make choices. You’re always going to have to alter the chronological sequence in some way. You are always going to have to make tough decisions about whose story to tell. All of those things have to be owned. And so, I think what people say is I have to stay in a good faith relationship with my subjects and tell the truth to the viewer. And the problem here is that sometimes you cannot tell the truth to the viewer, without in some way violating the trust of the subject. But the problem for them is that they're operating in a lonely, isolated environment when they make those decisions, and they are operating without ever having collectively clarified what those values are. Inevitably, ethical values always come into conflict with each other. It’s just the nature of things.
BOB GARFIELD: I want to ask you about the most famous rabbit leg breaker.
PATRICIA AUFDERHEIDE: [LAUGHS]
BOB GARFIELD: And, and that’s Michael Moore. Now, early in his career I was just absolutely in awe of this guy because of his ability to get the greatest imaginable tape that was hilarious and trenchant at the same time. And then as I laughed through Roger and Me and then later Fahrenheit 9/11, I realized that part of his shtick was clearly to fiddle with chronology and context in order to get the most comedic or political oomph out of a given sequence. In other words, he cheats.
PATRICIA AUFDERHEIDE: Mm-hmm [AFFIRMATIVE].
BOB GARFIELD: How prevalent is that sort of cheating to make a point?
PATRICIA AUFDERHEIDE: I think that most documentarians are absolutely worried about the Michael Moore approach, because they feel that their work is then distrusted. And that’s another case for why standards and practices are so important. One of the head people at the National Film Board of Canada said to me, we need your study because people we interview don't trust us anymore. But Michael Moore is so unusual. The growth of documentary in theaters and on television has really been much more dependant on stuff like Spellbound, Winged Migration, March of the Penguins, which have other ethical issues. I mean, those penguins don't mate for life, by the way. So those are the middle-range documentaries that do depend on a good faith relationship with the audience and that do have difficult ethical questions about the way that they've been edited and told and narrated and structured that, that I think we're really concerned about.
BOB GARFIELD: Wow, you mean penguins are promiscuous?
PATRICIA AUFDERHEIDE: [LAUGHS] Penguins tend to mate for a season, yes.
BOB GARFIELD: Oh, my goodness!
PATRICIA AUFDERHEIDE: That’s – it’s not, it’s not the love story of all [LAUGHS] time. It’s just the love story [LAUGHING] of the season. [LAUGHS] Sorry.
BOB GARFIELD: So has anyone had to answer for that, like, for example, the producers of March of the Penguins?
PATRICIA AUFDERHEIDE: No, they haven't. Winged Migration is another example of a documentary nature film. It’s about migrating birds. It’s not always clear to people who watch Winged Migration that they raised all of those birds, so that those birds are not raised in nature and merely caught by the amazing French team that photographed them. They were, they were [LAUGHS] actually part of the family.
BOB GARFIELD: Well, I got more than I bargained for. I find that in both instances those examples are extremely troubling. I don't ask you to speak for the documentarians themselves, but I am interested to know, you know, how bad you believe, as a scholar on the subject, that the problem is.
PATRICIA AUFDERHEIDE: I think the problem is actually very big in the most formulaic and most commercial products. They're the documentaries that are being done on the lowest budgets, the stuff on the History Channel that asks what was Atlantis really like? It is a big problem. But I think that the people we interviewed are part of the solution to the problem, because they are people whose work lives and dies on the reputation of them being honest and want desperately to articulate standards that can preserve and grow and nurture the reputation of documentary as an honest story about something real.
BOB GARFIELD: Patricia, thank you so much.
PATRICIA AUFDERHEIDE: Thank you.
BOB GARFIELD: Patricia Aufderheide is a professor at the Center for Social Media at American University and co-author of Honest Truths: Documentary Filmmakers on Ethical Challenges in Their Work.
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NARRATOR MORGAN FREEMAN: The father and his chicks sing to one another, making sure each knows the other’s voice.
[BIRDS “SINGING”] It is the only way that you will find each other when the father returns.
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BOB GARFIELD: That's it for this week's show. On the Media was produced by Jamie York, Mike Vuolo, Mark Phillips, Nazanin Rafsanjani, Michael Bernstein and P.J. Vogt, with more help from James Hawver and Dan Mauzy, and edited – by Brooke. We had technical direction from Jennifer Munson and more engineering help from Zach Marsh.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Katya Rogers is our senior producer and John Keefe our executive producer. Bassist/composer Ben Allison wrote our theme. This is On the Media from WNYC. I'm Brooke Gladstone.
BOB GARFIELD: And I'm Bob Garfield.