We often debate the ethics of journalism, or lack thereof. However as documentary filmmakers we tend not to discuss the ethics of what we are capturing or how we are presenting it.
This week I attended the Hotdocs film festival and conference in Toronto. On my first day I made a point of capturing the opening night film. Called The Manor it is the story of the filmmaker’s dysfunctional Jewish family who run a strip club. Filled with light and dark moments it was bound to entertain the audience.
Of course the colourful characters in and around the strip club brought many light moments, however the dark ones centred on the filmmakers mother. She has been battling an eating disorder since her husband acquired the club over 30 years ago. Now in her senior years her illness has taken a severe toll. On camera, up close and personal you can see it has made her a shell of a woman.
In the Q&A after the screening the filmmaker revealed how surprised he was that his mother opened up so much in front of the camera. Perhaps it was a form of ‘therapy’ of its own? During the film we see him attempt to help his mother by getting her to a clinic. For someone who has taken decades to get this far this really is a high point in the film.
However the relief of seeing her seek help soon turned to an uneasy voyeurism. Not only had he got her there, he stayed. The camera did not stop rolling; it was there for the duration of her first counseling session. Now while l can see how riveting that was, and how it made for great storytelling, I could not feel this was really inappropriate.
Counseling is private; it is a moment to reveal secrets, skeletons and things you may never have spoken about before in your life. This is not a place for a camera. While this was the first ‘introductory’ session it was still revealing.
Prior to this moment the filmmaker revealed how he and his brother’s girlfriend had found laxatives hidden in the home. These belonged to his mother and she was trying her hardest to keep them away from the prying eyes of her family.
During her therapy session she lied to the counselor and said she did not take laxatives. Now all I could think was if the camera was not here, would she be telling the truth? Has our intrusion and need for compelling voyeurism just prevented this woman from getting the help she badly needs?
Wearing my producer hat I am sure we could have still captured the imperative elements here. We already knew she was lying about her illness and the fact she walked out saying she would not go back speaks volumes about her willingness to get better.
Seeing her live after the screening I felt ill, she clearly needs serious help and I’m not sure if the documentary has made it any better.