Ethical Responsibilities of Documentary


"As someone sharing the stories of a community to which I do not belong, I feel a heavy responsibility to portray them with accuracy and dignity." Hanna Stawicki (2015 Fellow) has been thinking a lot about the ethical responsibilities filmmakers have towards those they film, as she works on her documentary transmedia project about a Dalit community in Nepal.

by Hanna Stawicki
Docs In Progress Fellow
July 1, 2015

As documentary filmmakers, we face many challenges while planning, creating, and distributing our films. Where can I get funding? How long should my film be? What adjustments do I need to make when things are not unfolding as expected? But the questions that are particularly unique to our craft revolve around ethics.

Documentary storytellers often deal with sensitive or controversial subject matter relating directly to our characters, or as I prefer to call them, participants. Ultimately, we choose to make these films because we feel our participants’ stories reveal new and necessary information.

Currently, I am working on Caste Out, a documentary and transmedia project that offers an intimate look into the lives of two Dalit families in Nepal, threatened by displacement  -- first by their own government, then by the devastating earthquake that struck in April 2015.

When I first began this project, my participants -- Gopal and Sita and their families -- were threatened by displacement due to a government road expansion project, which happens to be funded with foreign aid. When the earthquake struck, Gopal’s family was lucky to have lost very little. Sita, however, was not so fortunate. Her entire village was left in rubble. After the earthquake, Gopal and Sita’s families, like Dalit families around the country, are either overlooked or delayed in receiving aid. Discrimination when disbursing aid is a rising problem about which I hope to educate audiences. With this project I also hope to give a voice to the constantly overlooked and hushed Dalit community.

Despite my good intentions, I am all too aware of the many ethical dilemmas this project presents. Each day I find myself asking:

  • What is my responsibility to my participants?
  • What is my responsibility to the audience?
  • What is my responsibility to the film? 

I find these questions to be critical to decision making during the story development process. As someone sharing the stories of a community to which I do not belong, I feel a heavy responsibility to portray them with accuracy and dignity. As documentarians, we share a much deeper connection with our participants than one might find in journalism. In addition to filming Gopal and Sita, I also lived with them. This allows for a deeper understanding of their daily life, their motivations, their hardship, and their unfailing optimism. My goal is to tell their story with authenticity and respect.

To the audience, I must honor their knowledge while also educating them on an extremely important and timely issue. In deciding what elements are important to understanding the story and what can be omitted, I am building one’s understanding of a culture and issue. This immense responsibility does not come lightly and is one of the most difficult realities of documentary filmmaking for me.

When I think about my responsibility to the film, I return to why I set out to create this project in the first place. What is the takeaway for the viewer and how do I want them to experience the film?

As documentary storytellers, one of the hardest challenges is telling a beautiful, strong story without sacrificing accuracy. However, I also find this to be one of the most fulfilling parts of the work we do.

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