Ethics in Filmmaking

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Ethics in Filmmaking

One of the integral things that must be addressed when making a film is the ethics involved. Ethics are a constant issue that have to be carefully considered when filmmaking. This difficult decision-making is highly prevalent in that of documentaries, because of the difficulties associated in filming ‘real people’ or “social actors, (Nichols, 2001).” More importantly, the issues faced by a filmmaker differ between each of the documentary modes. Each particular documentary mode poses different formal choices that must be made in order to operate in an ethical fashion. Two films that have been made both display examples of how ethics must be considered when embarking on a documentary are Etre at Avoir [To Be and to Have], (2001) and Capturing the Friedmans (2003). These films have been made in different documentary modes, highlighting that there is not one mode which is easier or has fewer ethical issues associated with it. Additionally, what must be considered is how these style choices in these different modes affect the power relationships between the filmmaker, the subject and its audience, (Nichols, 2001).

The importance of ethics when making a film is paramount. They exist in the filmmaking world to “govern the conduct [because] no hard and fast rules suffice, (Nichols, 2001). As Bill Nichols has argued, the essential question to consider when making a documentary is “How Should We Treat the People We Film (Nichols, 2001)?” The welfare of the people who participate in the film is vital to recognise because they are “cultural players rather than theatrical performers, (Nichols, 2001)”, they are conveying is real life according to them. Each of their movements and words are not scripted, and are real. A filmmaker is documenting their actual lives because they believe that the value lies in presenting something of interest to themselves and to its audience. It is because of this reality that the issue is much more important because it “adds a level of ethical consideration to documentary that is much less prominent in fiction filmmaking, (Nichols, 2001).” People are portraying their real selves and are not masked by a personality that has been asked of them to depict by a director. What must also be considered is how attending to the ethics of filmmaking is the benefits that it holds for the filmmakers and the audience. “Ethica...

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...hly successful child-entertainer, would obviously encounter future problems because of his association to his father and brother. However, as David Friedman is capable of understanding what could result the responsibility lies largely with his choice to participate in the film.

Ethics are a constant issue that are raised when embarking on a film, particularly when filming a documentary. It is most important to consider the subjects in the film and what content will be portrayed to the audience. The ethical choices that occur within each documentary mode are somewhat similar but manifest differently within each mode. There is a careful balance between choices of power and style that needs to be created between the filmmaker, the subject and the audience in order to produce an ethically sound film.


1. Nichols, Bill. ‘Why are Ethical Issues Central to Documentary Filmmaking?’ Introduction to Documentary. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 2001, p1-20

2. Nichols, Bill. ‘Documentary Modes of Representation (The Observational Mode).’ Representing Reality: Issues and Concepts in Documentary. Bloomington & Indianapolis; Indiana University Press. 1991. 38-44

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