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Global Conversations: Ethics in Documentary Filmmaking

In this #TCGlobalConversations piece, Culture Editor @atmos @daphnemilner speaks to two @thursdayschildglobal directors about the ethics of documentary filmmaking.

It’s official: we’re in the era of documentary film. 

From true crime to political scandals, the documentary genre is the streaming industry’s fastest-growing category with output increasing by 63% between 2018 and 2021 and profits reaching $20 million for a box office hit. Success aside, the ethics of documentary filmmaking remain complex. 

The expectation of regular new releases mean shorter development time for filmmakers, who are encouraged to sensationalise storylines for buzz. “Online content has shortened our attention spans and created an insatiable appetite for more content, which risks proper scrutiny in favour of reaching a wider audience,” says documentary filmmaker @danielalifilms. Once intended to educate, the genre’s commodification privileges relevance at the expense of informative filmmaking.

The speed of consumption catalysed by short-form video content also impacts the reception of docu-testimonies, especially those who are speaking out against abusers or systemic wrongdoing. “Less time is given to people whose stories are being told, robbing them of the weight and respect they deserve,” says Ali.

Widespread exposure also risks online harassment. To avoid such situations, documentary filmmaker @adu.lalou says it’s important that “the goal should always be to create films that are fair, balanced, and respectful to the individuals and communities we work with.” 

One way to do this is to create spaces for an honest conversation with his cast and crew. “I strive to maintain transparency with my contributors to build trust and ensure they’re comfortable with my vision,” he says. “This process can take time, but I never rush or pressure them into making a film they’re uncomfortable with.”

The sentiment is echoed by Ali, who stresses the importance of respectful collaboration in a genre that has time and again come under fire for exploitative power dynamics. “I’m constantly weighing up the ethical factors and decisions needed when portraying someone’s story,” he says. “The learning never stops.”

The Journey of a Stateless Man by Daniel Ali