Watching, Documenting, or Participating: A Documentarian’s Ethical Dilemmas
Posted on January 25, 2013 by WITNESS
When is it okay to watch? When is it okay to shout with the crowd? Filmmaker Chris Kelly explains his bright line between observing and participating. Do you agree? Please share your thoughts in the comments.
By Chris Kelly
The Cause of Progress is a feature-length documentary about the lives of three Cambodians who have been caught up in the country’s chaotic and often violent economic progress. Set amidst the shifting political, religious, and familial landscapes of modern-day Cambodia, it’s the product of three and a half years that I spent living in the country.
Filming finished last October, and as we embark on post-production, I find myself reflecting on what I learned. I never intended to spend so long in Cambodia. But upon arriving, it was immediately apparent that there was no other way to make the film. I could not tell the whole story by spending a few months filming interviews and protests, and then returning home to edit whatever I had managed to shoot in that short period of time.
Over three years, the participants and their communities became an integral part of my life, and me theirs (I hope). I developed a deep understanding of the issues that they face, and saw first-hand the effects that Cambodia’s development policies are having on their lives. Learning their stories so intimately was heart-breaking and inspiring, and it gave me the space and the material to try and represent their lives truthfully. Only through these shared experiences could I make well-informed decisions about how to represent the complex forces that influence their lives.
I hoped that spending this time would lessen the ever-present danger that an outsider’s perspective will create a distorted version of reality, willfully or otherwise. While it’s absolutely necessary to intimately understand the issues and lives that you are documenting, it’s also extremely dangerous for foreigners to become heavily involved in the politics of a country that is not their own. Filmmakers, particularly those who are outsiders to the culture they are documenting, are confronted with serious ethical quandaries on the line between engaging and understanding—which is beneficial—and participating—which I believe is not.
Filmmakers walk the fine line between being participants and observers. There’s no doubt that if I were watching someone being beaten to death, I would put down my camera and intervene; a human life is more valuable than the record of a death. But it’s rarely this simple. I have filmed protests and watched young women beaten by riot police, and a part of me wanted to intervene. But my interference would distort the reality of that situation. If I become an agent rather than an observer, then I believe that there is no point me holding a camera and no point in me being there. Fundamentally, the role of the filmmaker in these situations is to observe and to recount reality as faithfully as possible, not to try to shape it by interfering.
Filmmakers must always keep in mind that while the foreigner can always walk away, those he is trying to help may not be able to, should things deteriorate.
In making this film, I am not participating in the issue of forced evictions during Cambodian development; I am not telling anyone what to think. In fact, I do not believe that my film will be instrumental in bringing about any kind of far-reaching change in Cambodia—and I don’t believe that is the purpose of documentaries.
Documentaries can create discourse, and I hope that The Cause of Progress does. The goal is to show the human cost of development, to focus on people and their personal stories. By connecting audiences with the true participants and their lives, the film raises questions about development, forced evictions, western institutions and their role in the developing world, the role of civil society and the corruption and kleptocracy of the Cambodian government. These are ideas that can engage with an audience and encourage them to look deeper, ask more questions, and start to take some action.
It will be enough for me if the film is seen by as many Cambodian people as possible, both in Cambodia and in the diaspora, and nudges them to engage. Cambodian media is entirely controlled by the state, and a successful documentary will prompt viewers to question the motives of their government and not accept things at face value.
In an excellent essay by Nick Fraser, the commissioning editor of BBC 4’s Storyville, he writes that documentaries “may become a way in which we come to think what it means to be bold, free and enquiring, seeing the world as it really is, and not in the way that others would want us to see it.” That is the purpose of documentaries, and it is my greatest hope that The Cause of Progress will achieve that.
You can watch the trailer for The Cause of Progress, which is in the final stages of its crowdfunding campaign, below:
Chris Kelly is director, cinematographer, photographer, and a documentary filmmaker who has worked as a video and photojournalist for Al Jazeera, the Global Post, France 24 and many other publications. His first film ‘GuinnessSize Me’ won “Best International Film” at the Atlanta Film Festival and was screened at more than 20 film festivals around the world.