Posted by: Lucila Cejas | October 16, 2014

Ethics in Documentary Filmmaking

While reading on individuals and their ethical issues, there was something that stood out to me. The writers explain how the purpose of journalism is changing from the distribution of truth to the packaging of opinionated commentary. This is posing a great ethical threat since journalists should strive to be “transparent, accountable, and open”, and their work should be informative instead of persuasive.

Documentary film making combines the art of film with the passion of journalism. Audiences are captivated by the visual storytelling and see documentaries as true representations of a topic, often being unaware of the fact that they are watching a series of carefully crafted decisions. From the tightness of the shot (close and personal or far and distant?), to the film’s score (optimistic tune or slightly dissonant one?), scenes are edited in a specific way in order to take the viewer into a journey. The way interviews are conducted can influence the types of emotional reactions from the subject, which can then be used as a device to move the story arc.

These choices pose a problem for the documentarian, who strives to be a journalist-filmmaker and instead has to make a choice between the two. Is it possible to create unbiased documentaries? How much can a  filmmaker’s decisions influence the perception of a topic? Should we treat documentaries to the same standard as print investigative reports? Or do we overlook artistic decisions and rely on the ethos of the filmmaker?


  1. Lucila, I would like us to free ourselves from this binary choice you describe. Some people seem to want to judge a documentarian’s skill by whether or not her biases completely disappear when she produces a film, but I think this insults the viewer’s intelligence. When I watch a documentary, I want to see a story told in an artistic and truthful way. I don’t think these elements are mutually exclusive. Differing points of view DON’T have to be given “equal time” for one to be considered a fair and ethical journalist. Your audience–most of them, anyway–will be discerning enough to appreciate your work, even if they know what your opinion is, and even if they don’t agree with it.

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