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.CauseOfProgressImage

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.

Screen Shot 2013-01-25 at 4.02.42 PM
A still image from the trailer for The Cause of Progress.

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.

4 thoughts on “Watching, Documenting, or Participating: A Documentarian’s Ethical Dilemmas

  1. I took part in a civil disobedience march during the global climate negotiations in Copenhagen in 2009. I was both a reporter and an activist, getting pepper sprayed and hit by police truncheons in a deliberate attempt to better understand the activist perspective on what to do in the face of a failed political process.

    The experience forms the introductory narrative of my book Fraudcast News – How Bad Journalism Supports Our Bogus Democracies.

    I think your position is made clearer in your response to Madeleine, and I agree with what you say. I think you may be misleading yourself, however, to think that such a separation is possible.

    Quantum physics teaches us that to observe is to influence, it is inescapable. When it comes to the stuff of humans, that is also, inevitably the case.

    I don’t think that’s a bad thing either, not least because the experiences of Cambodians are a version of the same globalised misgovernance that is causing misery the world over.

    1. Thanks for the comment, I have downloaded your book and look forward to reading it.

      Philosophically it is fine to argue about whether or not your observation has an impact on the events unfolding, and surely it does, to varying degrees, of course such a separation is not really possible. But that is not really the point.
      As a filmmaker or journalist you adhere to certain moral and ethical guiding principles, you accept these as universal and you get on with your job, using an example of quantum physics to say that all observation is participation is to me making an excuse for not wishing to deal directly with tough ethical choices. If we were to take this scientific approach as our guiding principle in our professional and personal lives, then there would be no need for morality or ethics to shape our decisions.

      Protesting in Denmark (a liberal, left-leaning democracy and EU member state, with little in the way of human rights abuses, 3rd in the democracy index and 2nd in the corruption perception index in 2012), on a subject matter that directly impacts you, is very different that joining a protest in a country where you do not necessarily speak the language and therefore fully understand the situation you are involved in, in a country with a horrendous human rights abuse record, (164th on the same corruption index) in which the Cambodian nationals you are protesting alongside do not have the opportunity to escape persecution by fleeing the country as you do.

      In Copenhagen you have a) a moral right to protest and b) the knowledge that you are free to leave the country at any time should you wish to do so. In developing countries with authoritarian leaders your involvement in protests gives fuel to an oppressive regime to legitimise further crackdowns and it undermines the genuine efforts of those protesting.

      I don’t think you should say that what is happening to Cambodians is the same thing that is happening ‘the world over.’ There may be common threads and recurrences, but there are a multitude of utterly different factors as well, each one unique to each situation. That kind of idea is how development aid agencies like the World Bank and the IMF have caused so much harm over the years.

  2. I’d be interested in learning why you feel so strongly that documentarians should not participate in the issue they’re filming? And do you mean only participating during production, or would you also not “participate” in the issue you documented after production, such as holding screenings with the community and people of influence to discuss the issue and what steps can be taken to rectify it? In my transition from a traditional news reporter to a documentary filmmaker I learned why so many documentarians do get intimately involved in their subject matter. When you spend so much time with a community, and are dependent on their participation for the production of your film, it is hard not to want to use your skills, materials, and outlet to “participate” in their cause. That, in fact, is the incredible power of films, as we’ve seen throughout the work that WITNESS does.

    1. Thank you for the comment. Maybe I should explain myself a bit better here. I am not against a filmmaker being involved in the issues that he/she films; it is quite the opposite in fact. I personally am deeply involved in the issues that my film explores, our team has a huge advocacy and audience engagement strategy that spans from grassroots community networks in Cambodia to screening the film to aid and development agencies, donors and policy makers. And we have both civil society organisations and academic institutions as partners who will help to bring these plans to life. But these things must happen after the film has been finished. If you start grass roots advocacy while you are filming, then you are shaping the nature of what you are documenting. If you interfere directly in the lives of your participants while you are filming them, then you are not documenting their lives, you are documenting how you are changing their lives, and I think that is an important distinction to make. (And I think it is unethical if you do not show your interference in the finished film).

      If you are an activist who uses film as a tool for advocacy then that is very different than a filmmaker who makes films that can be used for advocacy.

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