Dear Documentary Filmmakers: Do you really need to zoom in on your interview subject as s/he begins to cry?
The above example is a cliché at this point, but that doesn’t mean it’s not being done anymore – quite the contrary. You’ve managed to get your interviewee to open up about some painful subject and you notice tears beginning to well. You think, “This is it, this is the shot!” and you abruptly zoom in so that the audience is sure to catch that tear in all of its magnified glory on the giant theatrical screen in your mind.
Do you really think your viewers will miss that obvious tear? They won’t notice the awkward movement of the camera? They will excuse your blatant attempt to milk every last drop of empathy out of them?
There are two things going on here with which I take issue: the manipulation of the audience and the exploitation of the subject. Speaking to the former, you, as the filmmaker, are responsible for choosing what your audience will see and how they will see it. Depending on your approach and your topic, you can do this with a heavier or a lighter hand. If your film is advocacy-oriented and you are taking a particular side on an issue, of course it’s understandable that you’ll be pushing a given agenda or trying to elicit a certain response from your audience. Even so, it’s important to remain intellectually honest. Make your arguments, show them the footage that you think will influence them, but don’t assume they’re idiots or treat them as such. Viewers, especially self-selecting viewers who seek out social issue documentaries, are typically pretty savvy. They’ll pick up on dishonesty or manipulation, and that’s only going to undercut your intent. Better to show them some respect and win them over through a more sincere approach.
Speaking of respect – which was the subject of last week’s DDF on transgender subjects – never lose sight of your relationship with and responsibility to your subjects. They’re under no obligation to be in your documentary. If they agree, you are charged with representing them in an appropriate manner. This doesn’t mean you have no say in how to use them in the structure of your film – you don’t have to like or agree with an interviewee, and certainly there are many examples of docs in which a particular subject is painted as the villain. Even if this is the case, there are ways to get your point across without humiliating, demonizing, or exploiting your subject – you can use their words or reactions against them, but still remain respectful.
If you are sympathetic to your subject, as is likely in the case of the hypothetical crying interviewee above, you should still have a sense of limits. You have to be able to weigh your desire for getting certain types of shots for your doc with the comfort level of your subject. S/he may be ok with crying on camera, but making it a hyperfocus may be crossing that line. A more egregious example would be a scene in which an interview subject requests that the camera be turned off or turned away from him/her, but the filmmaker continues to record. Yes, if you already have a signed release from your interviewee, you might be within your legal rights to continue shooting and to include the footage in your film. However, just because you can do something doesn’t always mean you should. Sometimes a filmmaker can get swept up in the moment and disregard ethics in favor of self-interest. Of course I’m sure that in some cases, after the subject has calmed down, s/he may decide that it’s ok to use that footage, but in other cases, s/he really meant it when s/he said s/he needed to take a break. You have to be sensitive to the delicate balance between your own wishes and those of your subject. If you push too far, you risk crossing the line into exploitation, and that can create numerous problems down the line, not only between your subject and you, but potentially for your audience.