Dear Documentary Filmmakers: Viewer Discretion

Dear Documentary Filmmakers: Viewer discretion advisories are for TV shows. Programmers are adults, you don’t need to warn us.

Within the last year or so, I’ve started to notice that some filmmakers are using viewer discretion advisories at the beginnings of their films – at least for the docs that have crossed my path for various programming or curatorial purposes. I’m not sure if the warnings have ended up staying there or not when the films actually screen publicly, but that’s part of my issue here – it comes down to you as a filmmaker understanding who is watching and judging your film and how you should and should not address them.

I understand if you might consider a specific image so disturbing that you feel you should warn the viewer – for example, during the course of a recent film, a card notified me that the next shot was especially gruesome, involving a crime scene. A one-off notice such as this, directly preceding the potentially offending scene, is fine. What I’m taking issue with is, in contrast, a blanket warning before even a single image has been put on screen. This sets up a certain expectation and begins a specific kind of one-sided dialogue with the programmer/curator that, at least in my opinion, doesn’t help you.

I might be overstating this – moving it more in the direction of a pet peeve, though I think the larger issue goes beyond my personal preferences – but, to me, employing any kind of advisory like this strikes me as somewhat infantilizing or condescending – like a voice of God or Big Brother giving judgement. It tells your viewer/the programmer not only what you think about your film’s content, but also what they should think or at least are likely to think – the former is of course acceptable, it’s your film after all, but the latter is problematic. You’ve made a pre-judgement about how I might want to react to the content of your film. Within the implicit relationship that exists between you as a filmmaker and me as a programmer, that’s not your job to decide. Of course, you believe in your film and you want me to like it – that’s a given. But you have to let go enough to allow someone who’s judging your work to make an independent assessment absent of prodding from you about how to respond to your content.

I don’t mean to denigrate TV programs of course, and although I might also take issue with viewer discretion advisories used there, I recognize that as a more open platform, younger children might be watching, an the advisories serve some purpose. In the case of festival submissions, that’s not a concern and you should really think about who you’re addressing and how. We’re adults, and it’s our job to watch and assess content critically. Being told that “viewer discretion is advised” is unnecessary and irksome – and you don’t want to irk the person judging your film.


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Filed under Dear Documentary Filmmakers, Documentary, Film

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