Why Are Ethical Issues Central to Documentaries?

Want to learn about how to make a documentary? It's critical to understand the theories behind it. There are several problems with the documentary hypothesis, so it's important to look through it all. You're probably already familiar with a little bit about  the programs from the documentary channel, but have you asked yourself: what about the genre?

Documentaries of wish-fulfillment are what we would normally call fictions. These films give tangible expression to our wishes and dreams, our nightmares and dreads. They make the stuff of the imagination concrete—visible and audible.

Documentaries of social representation are what we typically call non-fiction. These films give tangible representation to aspects of the world we already inhabit and share. The make the stuff of social reality visible and audible in a distinctive way […] They give a sense of what we understand reality itself to have been, of what it is now, or what it may become. These films also convey truths if we decide they do. We must assess their claims and assertions, their perspectives and arguments in relation to the world as we know it and decide whether they are worthy of our belief. Documentaries of social representation offer us new vies of our common world to explore and understand.

As stories, films of both type call on us to interpret them, and as “true stories,” films call on us to believe them. Interpretation is a matter of grasping how the form or organization of the film conveys meanings and values.

More on Documentary Theory

Documentaries lend us the ability to see timely issues in need of attention, literally. The bond between documentary and the historical world is deep and profound. Documentary adds a new dimension to popular memory and social history.

Documentaries engage with the world by representing it, and it does so in three ways:

  • Documentaries bear a recognizable familiarity
    • An image cannot tell everything we want to know about what happened
    • Images can be altered both during and after the fact by both conventional and digital means.
  • Documentaries stand for or represent the interests of others.
  • Documentaries may represent the world in the same way a lawyer may represent a client’s interests: they put the case for a particular view or interpretation of evidence before us.

Documentaries offer aural and visual likenesses or representations of some part of the historical world. They stand for or represent the views of individuals, groups, and institutions. They also make representations, mount arguments, or formulate persuasive strategies of their own, setting out to persuade us to accept their views as appropriate.

Actors in Documentaries?

“People” are treated as social actors: They continue to conduct their lives more or less as they would have done without the presence of a camera.

The director’s right to a performance is a “right” that, if exercised, threatens the sense of authenticity that surrounds the social actor.

Ethical issues often arise in relation to the question of “In Documentary, How Should We Treat the People We Film?” because of the degree to which the filmmaker is set apart from those he or she films.

Developing a sense of ethical regard becomes a vital part of the documentary filmmaker’s professionalism.

The Audience in Documentary Theory

Very different forms of alliance can take shape between the three-fold interaction among 1) filmmaker, 2) subjects or social actors, and 3) audience and viewers.

“You” becomes activated as an audience when the filmmaker conveys a sense that he or she is indeed addressing us, that the film reaches us in some way. Without this sense of activation we may be present at but not attend to the film.

Sometimes, filmmakers of documentaries use rhetoric. Rhetoric is the form of speech used to persuade or convince others about an issue for which no clear-cut, unequivocal answer or solution exists

SourceNichols, B.(2010). Introduction to Documentary, Second Edition. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.



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