An elderly Cajun recalls his life spent in the Louisiana bayous for decades as he has struggled to survive on the meager income of a crabber and oysterman. He breaks down, confessing, “It’s my whole life; it’s all I know.” His tears aren’t self-pity; rather, they are nostalgic as he knows his gnarled fingers aren’t long for this continued life of physical labour. His productive time is over. Black out followed by music.

A Mexican dog pound just over the border has more than it can handle, and the animal control officer explains in Spanish that wild dogs are a danger to the human population and must be euthanized, a metaphor for the dispossessed illegals dying while crossing the border. The camera glides over shivering faces of doomed dogs behind rusty iron bars. Small poodles and terriers, beagles and Cocker Spaniels; soaking wet, are placed on a concrete floor, then hastily poked with hypodermic syringes filled with heart stopping anesthetic. A dog stands stock still for several seconds, then begins to sway and swagger in a spiral to the floor. Closer in and down on the concrete, we are next to the little poodle as the euthanasia continues. Frozen and helpless, eyes staring, the animal takes a second needle in the torso. Still breathing, the dog’s death rattle begins, its body slowly twisting and limbs contorting as far as its muscles will stretch. The camera lingers on the still breathing form. Black out. Music.

A ragged gang of black street kids run and pirouette in wild abandon through the streets of Nairobi, Kenya. Each child clutches a small plastic bottle full of honey coloured upholstery glue permanently to the nose like a pacifier, carefully maintaining a hypnotic stare. Some of the children look as young as four years of age. The camera stays on a seven-year-old boy whose eyes are slits, his body draped over two others piled against a wall. An older boy attempts to rouse him and pulls his lifeless limbs to revive him. Finally, we see signs of life in his eyes. The camera does not blink throughout; then there is a blackout followed by loud Euro-synth music.

An elderly platinum bottle-blonde with an alcohol-ravaged face raises her 24-ounce bottle of Hurricane malt liquor and declares to the filmmaker that she’s not drinking. Her mood grows more despairing with successive shots. The humiliation of losing her kids to the bottle, finding them after twenty years of riding rails, then once again losing them to the bottle is to her a confounding mystery, as are the certainty of court papers charging her and her ex-husband with incest 25 years previous. Incongruously, she declares that “everything is going to be all right,” but the camera doesn’t relent. It follows her increasingly troubling bender as she dances on a ledge in front of a church, teeters out of control, then raises a defiant fist to the sky. It hovers over her in close-up as she finally passes out cold. Black out.

These four scenes were viewed by audiences as part of the 2013 New Orleans Film Festival’s documentary competition and represent, in order, Water Like Stone (Zack Godshall, 2012), Purgatorio (Rodrigo Reyes, 2013), Tough Bond (Austin Peck and Anneliese Vandenberg, 2013), and my own film, For I Know My Weakness (John Dentino, 2012). Each one represents varying depths of ethical quicksand for the filmmakers, the jurists, and the audiences.

Here’s the thing: filmmakers around the world are using the newly available digital cameras to bring stories about people, as well as social and political issues, to worldwide audiences. Some of these, like mine, are gritty documentaries that test the limits of traditional journalistic or documentary ethics. So, while there is nothing new about documentaries, what’s new is the willingness and the ability of a new wave of film authors to go to extraordinary lengths to bring to the relatively small class of comfortable consumers of this kind of media, intensely intimate stories about the difficulties and discomforts of the folks who comprise the vast majority in the world. These film authors are not journalists in the traditional sense, for journalism is about detachment. They are embedded storytellers who immerse themselves in their subjects, then recreate their subjects’ reality through narrative storytelling instead of journalistic reporting.

The filmmaking couple, Austin Peck and Anneliese Vandenberg, who made Tough Bond, look to be relatively privileged young people—slightly hipster, into new alternative and electronic music, and social activism. But they’re not posers. Vandenberg was a model working in L.A. and Peck has a doctorate in neurobiology. And, they belong to a different generation from my own baby boomers, who have been described as the most self-indulgent, spoiled, and “narcissistic” generation ever. They’re probably Generation Y, otherwise known as Millennials, who, I’ve noticed, haven’t let their social idealism curdle into irony as my generation has.

Fig 1. Anneliese Vandenberg and Austin Peck

Fig 1. Anneliese Vandenberg and Austin Peck

I talked to them after their New Orleans Q&A. Turns out that one day, to get out of their rut, they decided to go to Africa and work in HIV clinics. Within a few months, they had met the street children of Kenya, orphans of the AIDS epidemic who had taken to the comforts of glue sniffing. After befriending a handful of them, they moved into their partially dilapidated huts, sleeping on the dirt floors with them, and in the case of the female half of the filmmaking duo, “spooning” all night with a pregnant African woman who had been afraid to sleep alone. Later, they began filming the lives and loves of these Kenyan dispossessed, observing and recording their destitution and addictions as well as their hopes and aspirations.

Their impulse was to help the Kenyan kids and give voice to indigenous tribes like theirs whose cultures had been superseded by the spreading globalist culture with its own economic and social models. The usual ways a tribe or village would have helped orphans in the past were eroded by their moving to the cities, and the native tribal and familial infrastructures that formerly supported these children were destroyed by geographic displacement. They were replaced with urbanization—and a dog-eat-dog ethos that left massive numbers of kids on the streets.

Vandenberg and Peck say that the appalling glue addictions of the Kenyan street kids at first prompted them to snatch the bottles out of their hands. But that didn’t work as the children were hell-bent on escaping their destitute reality. So the filmmakers tried to empathize by trying out glue-sniffing themselves for a couple of days. After that failed experiment, they relented and let the street children do what they were wont to do, which continued to be self-destructive glue sniffing, and in the midst of rocky intimate relationships, exposing themselves to AIDS via sexual adventurism.

Fig. 2 Making Tough Love

Fig. 2 Making Tough Love

After finishing Tough Bond, their first film, they decided to bring it all to the attention of the world community via cinema, where the glaring spotlight of film festivals could expose it to comfortable Western audiences who wouldn’t otherwise care.

After Vandenberg and Peck, there will be even more young people who follow in their wake, not just because the equipment is cheaper, but because of the exploding number of film schools; the ridiculous amount of new film festivals, and Internet sites like YouTube, Vimeo, and Netflix.

The only trouble with this new digital openness is that despite more potential places to see docs, most audiences are watching corporate entertainment products—“cable reality docs” on cable channels—where outcomes and plot lines are manipulated. And funding is harder than ever for small-budgeted, immersive, independent docs that take time—sometimes years—to make.

In America, most of the traditional documentary funding sources such as ITVS (PBS’s funding arm) and the numerous private charitable foundations are inundated with the usual professional producers with their template-driven proposals that promise the investors what Vandenbeg and Peck or I can never promise: a blueprint for how the plot will unfold from beginning to end..

The kinds of immersive docs I’m talking about that take an extraordinary commitment from the filmmaker have been around for a long time. Tough Bond’s antecedent is a film called Darwin’s Nightmare (2003) by French director Hubert Sauper, who was present when I and my producer and co-editor were at IDFA last November in Amsterdam. Sauper’s method was to hang out with his subjects—from politicians to street kids—in the towns that ring Tanzania’s Lake Victoria and film them for years. Since the introduction last century of the Nile Perch, an alien species of fish, the lake’s indigenous fauna and flora have been squeezed out. While an environmental disaster, the fatty, nutrient-rich flesh of the Nile Perch has turned out to be a profitable local commodity for export to European restaurants. An entire fishing industry and huge packing plant now supports the poor who live on the lake’s edge. Though they barely eke out a living on the low wages and must eat the leftover carcasses after the filets have been stripped for white Europeans, the African peasants are now dependent on the wages. Whole economic sectors have sprung up and thrived to support the peasant fishermen and plant workers, including the prostitutes who service them. Of course, this has brought the scourge of AIDS to working girls from the outlying villages. The final insult is that, through digging around persistently, Sauper finally coaxes the Russian pilots into admitting that the cargo airliners packed with frozen filets for European tables bring back lethal weapons on their inbound flights. The arms trade supplies neighbouring countries’ civil wars, contributing to the violence between their governments and rebels. Sauper’s obsessive on-the-spot camera records the truth that might never have been brought to light otherwise.

No clear villains or heroes emerge from Darwin’s Nightmare. Instead, there is the shared tragedy and responsibility of the human family. You can identify victims and perpetrators, but you can’t find one clear source of evil; neither can you find an example of pure virtue.

There will always be an audience for the Ken Burns educational style of documentaries (The Civil War [1990], The Dust Bowl [2012])—but to me they too often trade in the condescending sanctimony of supposedly inviolate historical truths dispensed from on high, as well as a deification of the subjects. Another style of current documentaries is the Davis Guggenheim style (An Inconvenient Truth [2006], Waiting for Superman [2010]). These venture into complex worlds and choose to simplify them into mushy pabulum for the purpose of advocacy. They lead us (his audience) into smug satisfaction for believing the “right” thing, and I find myself resisting their easy solutions—use less toilet paper every day and you will save the world. Which brings me to my own qualms about doing the “right” thing in making For I Know My Weakness.

For I Know My Weakness: An answer to critics

Fig 3. For I Know My Weakness

Fig 3. For I Know My Weakness

“Having had a spiritual awakening as the result of these steps, we tried to carry this message to other addicts, and to practice these principles in all our affairs.”

—Step 12 of Alcoholics Anonymous

My own documentary is in the immersive cinema verité style and anything but objective because it’s essentially an author’s point-of-view type of narrative.

It begins with me helping Patty, a fellow alcoholic, find AA meetings, reunite with her family, then follow the family as Patty slowly descends into a downward spiral. It is, for some, perhaps, difficult to watch. And I became aware early on that some would find my methods ethically suspect; in fact, it almost stopped me early on. But I was so fascinated by Patty’s addiction as I perceived it paralleling my own, albeit in in a less severe way, that I felt it was worth risking the charge of exploitation. I wanted to reveal how alcohol still worked for Patty despite all obvious signs that she should quit, that it still dulled her psychic pain. To me, this was the key to making the story a cautionary tale. To actually show the process.

My original impetus to help Patty was to do what people in the AA program call a living amends where one makes up for one’s mistakes by doing a random good deed rather than a deed for the actual person one has harmed. I began taking Patty to AA meetings. About two months into this process, I asked her if I could bring a camera along. Soon she opened up and revealed her bad-girl personality. I became fascinated with this person who had train-hopped her way across the country for ten years and ended up on Skid Row.

What happened during the three years of filming is that a pure mission to help a fellow alcoholic evolved into a personal art project, and my approach to helping Patty stay sober went from advising her gently not to drink to hectoring and cajoling her. Once I developed a stake in the outcome of her sobriety, I found myself reminding her that she was slowly killing herself; I was really hooked in.

By the middle of the film, the filmmaker has totally abandoned his 12th step role of helping another alcoholic and has become an obsessive biographer who records an unfortunate but inevitable downward spiral. A sordid family history of abuse and incest, fueled by alcohol, emerges. When filming Patty in a drunken state, a random person on the street accuses me of exploitation—the opposite of helping. It’s reversal of mission, and of fortune, for the man behind the camera. The viewer sees this process of filmmaker turning codependent with his subject, and I wasn’t averse to showing it.

 The ‘E’ Word

One of the people who stayed for the question-and-answer session in New Orleans was a festival jurist for the NOFF short docs competition, a whip-smart, Emmy winning editor of hip hop docs, a social justice advocate, and teacher of documentary filmmaking at CUNY. After the film, she chimed in with a criticism I’d heard from two people in preview screenings: We had exploited our subjects. The film was another example of exploitation in a world where there are now entirely too many exploitative reality TV shows. She seemed to imply that the film amounted to a fancy train wreck, and by presiding over this with a personal narration, I was, “frankly,” narcissistic and self-indulgent.

At first, I tried to dispute what she said. After all, my relationship with Patty had been good overall. She and all the other subjects had signed release forms. And there was the all-important matter of intention —at least intention was important to me. My mission was to make Patty and her people significant. It wasn’t to shame them, which may be the ultimate outcome; at no time was it to harm them; rather, it was to humanize them and bring that to well-fed people in cushy chairs at film festivals. Uh-oh…maybe that is exploitation.

Something that haunted me throughout filming had been the specter of the geek show, the carnivalesque. It is always a risk. 

Filmmakers as the Protectors and Saviours of the ‘Lower’ Classes

I can’t question the Q&A critic’s ethical judgment because that is her true reaction based on what she took from the film. But let’s look at the roots of the word ethical. I had to refer to The Ethos of the Cosmos: The Genesis of Moral Imagination in the Bible by William P. Brown:

“Ethos [from the Greek], originally meant “stall” or “dwelling.” At base, it designates a sense of place or habitation. The term signifies an environment that makes possible and sustains moral living, establishing the direction and parameters of human conduct. Ethos defines the setting that is conducive for the formation of a community’s character. Thus “ethics,” also derived from Greek ethos, is concerned with that which holds human society together. It is, so to say, the ‘cement’ of human society.’” (1)

In my film, the subject has ventured way beyond the boundaries society erects to hold her in. She has broken free. And though her freedom is circumscribed and she is unhappy, no one can say she isn’t doing what she wants in life.

For critics of the film, I too had ventured out of the bounds of what was acceptable in the stall or dwelling of conventional documentary filmmaking. Yet I also have to question the Q&A critic’s basic existential assumptions about social class and how documentaries should deal with it. From her comments, it was almost as if the critic at the Q&A held me responsible for failing to remake my subjects into liberal bourgeoisie icons in order to affirm the nobility of the “lower” class.

Filmmakers find themselves in ethical quandaries about exploitation especially when they are more affluent than their subjects. They have to acknowledge they’re not within the walls of their own stalls but rather venturing onto other people’s domains. And those people may be suspicious of their motivations.

From a series of interviews with 45 documentary makers conducted by the American University Center for Social Media, you can see the majority of them were concerned with what my Q&A critic was concerned with:

“In the case of subjects who [the filmmakers] believed were less powerful in the relationship than themselves, they believed that their work should not harm the subjects or leave them worse off than before…filmmakers typically described a relationship in which the filmmaker had more social and sometimes economic power than the subject. They widely shared the notions of “Do no harm” and ‘Protect the vulnerable.’” (2)

This is a noble goal that filmmakers should make every effort to follow. But for me, the conventional wisdom about the responsibilities of filmmakers who chronicle the “lower” classes or the poor is founded as much on admirable ethics as it is on paternalism and infantilization.

To explain how unconscious we can all be about this paternalism, just look at a new history book by Thaddeus Russell titled A Renegade History of the United States. In it Russell retells our history and turns the museum diorama upside down, then shakes it. Just at the time when The People’s History of the Unites States has become a common college textbook, Russell reimagines those downtrodden underclass victims of Howard Zinn’s history as heroes who refused to conform to a Protestant work ethic by rebelling from social control and stifling rules that the founding fathers—men like John Adams and James Madison—wanted to impose on citizens of the pre-Revolutionary War colonies.

Russell describes the cities of the original colonies as places of widespread drunkenness, where even courtroom judges imbibed. On the streets of Philadelphia, male prostitutes were dressed as women, “negroes” were cavorting with whites, and women owned taverns. Russell finds that “during the war of Independence, Americans drank an estimated 6.6 gallons of absolute alcohol per year—equivalent to 5.8 shot glasses of 80-proof liquor a day—for each adult fifteen or over.”

John Adams was deeply disturbed by what he saw in the streets. He proclaimed, “Mobs will never do—to govern States or command armies…To talk of Liberty in such a state of things—!” Russell points out, “The men who created the United States were part of a transatlantic movement in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries to replace the external controls over subjects in absolutist regimes with the internal restraints of citizens in republics…[which] required not just the overthrow of monarchs but also the repression of what was called ‘man’s animal passions.’”

Fig. 4 Tavern in Pre-Revolutionary Times

Fig. 4 Tavern in Pre-Revolutionary Times

That these passions have never been completely controlled is the point of Russell’s book. He’s saying that “bad” people who broke laws—drunks, prostitutes, defiant runaway slaves, illegal immigrants, pirates, and homosexuals, forged freedoms for the rest of us by refusing any responsibility that comes with accepting the ethical boundaries the founding fathers had built for us.

As filmmakers, we have to ask ourselves if it’s preferable to airbrush our subjects’ dignity by choosing not to show them being their bad selves? Doesn’t our impulse to improve their behaviour validate that inevitable sense of shame they have about their lives? The Q&A critic seems to argue that In revealing too much about the abject quality of my subject’s story, I had missed an opportunity to lift her from her degraded state and make her into a good citizen we could all identify with, perhaps even cheer for.

The Lie that Points to the Truth

But should a filmmaker feel compelled to realign his subjects’ stars to make the story line more palatable? Many documentary makers, indeed, believe in readjusting their subjects’ story line.

Malik Bendjelloul’s Oscar winning documentary Searching for Sugar Man (2012) has galvanized audiences with the story of Sixto Rodriguez, an American singer-songwriter who put out two records in the early 1970’s that didn’t sell. According to the film, the brilliant and deserving Rodriguez faded into utter obscurity, and there were rumours of his suicide. The film follows two South African fans who go on a search for what had happened to him and endeavour to tell him of his sudden unexpected fame in their country. Turns out he had disappeared into the vast urban wilderness of Detroit as a construction worker. And thanks to the help of the fans and the documentary, he is rediscovered and saved from obscurity. The problem with the story is that Rodriguez had never sunk into the oblivion portrayed in the film, but rather had a substantial career in Australia and New Zealand as an opening act for Men at Work and Midnight Oil in the early 80’s and, to top it off, had released live albums of the concerts. So while, yes, obscure in America, he was known elsewhere in the world. Yet that wouldn’t have made as compelling a story, nor would it have massaged the Academy members’ sense of justice done.

There are plenty of other docs that are less than meticulous about honesty when it comes to their subjects’ stories. In Super Size Me (2004), Morgan Spurlock survives on an exclusive diet of MacDonald’s food for a month and finds that his 5,000 calorie-a-day regimen has rendered him fatigued, fat, liver-damaged, and depressed. The problem is that despite attempts by many researchers to replicate Spurlock’s results, none have been able to, and no one can confirm how he could have managed to consume as much as 5,000 calories a day on the food he claims to have eaten.

In Waiting for Superman, Davis Guggenheim cooks the numbers in the statistics about charter schools versus public schools, resulting in the impression that they are the answer to the country’s education problems. He does this in order to give his audience a reassuring feeling that the immense problems portrayed in the film are something that can be handled by a few fixes.

Even the revered Nanook of the North (1922), by Robert Flaherty, acknowledged as the first documentary feature, adjusts the reality of its subjects’ lives and ultimate fate to the expectations of his 1920’s American audience:

“Flaherty has been criticized for deceptively portraying staged events as reality…the “wife” shown in the film was not really his wife. According to Charles Nayoumealuk, who was interviewed in “Nanook Revisited” (1988), “the two women in Nanook…were in fact common-law wives of Flaherty.” And although [Nanook] normally used a gun when hunting, Flaherty encouraged him to hunt after the fashion of his recent ancestors in order to capture the way the Inuit lived before European influence…Flaherty also exaggerated the peril to Inuit hunters with his claim…that Allakariallak had died of starvation two years after the film was completed, whereas in fact he died at home, likely of tuberculosis.”

Fig 5. Robert Flaherty

Fig 5. Robert Flaherty

The formula of these kinds of docs has been to take several subjects who can literally embody vast and complicated social problems, then follow their lives until something resembling a solution shows itself. For the final edit, you only choose the subjects whose fates turn out to be close to the predetermined fate you’re hoping for. If that isn’t close enough, then manipulate the storyline to fit it.

Picasso said art is a lie that points to the truth. In the world of painting, drama, and novels—the imaginary realm of plots and fictional characters—the artist doesn’t have to reflect the truth in any literal way. But how far can we nonfiction documentary makers venture into poetic license and maintain our credibility? We have to reveal the lives of real people in a way that differentiates us from narrative, fiction filmmaking. The new genre of hybrid doc is one thing—it uses image and metaphor to tell a real story—but using those same narrative flourishes to tell a false story—well, that’s something else.

“…faced with evidence of or a decision for inaccuracy or manipulation, [filmmakers] often moved ‘the truth’ to a higher conceptual level, that of ‘higher truth.’…This ‘higher truth’ or a ‘sociological truth’ inadvertently invoked documentary pioneer John Grierson’s description of documentary as a ‘creative treatment of actuality.’” (4)

The Filmmaker’s Do-Gooder Side Versus His Artistic Side

“I usually enter people’s lives at a time of crisis. If the tables were turned, God forbid,” said Joe Berlinger, “I would never allow them to make a film about my tragedy. I am keenly aware of the hypocrisy of asking someone for access that I myself would probably not grant.” (5)

What Berlinger describes is something many of us have thought about; we prefer to keep the glass between us and our subjects a one-way-mirror.

Which brings me to another one of the troubles I had in New Orleans. One of the subjects in For I Know My Weakness was at NOFF with us. I thought it would be a good experience for the subject to show up in person and for the audience to see a survivor who was doing well in life after the traumas depicted in the film.

After the Q&A, and perhaps emboldened by the criticism we encountered, our subject revealed that the deepest revelations in the film were unbearably shameful. Our subject’s wish that it all be secret once again is a natural thing to want—what goes against the mold is to bring it all into the open, so I instinctually understood our subject’s feelings. But after the showing, I felt like I had betrayed the friendship. Apparently, I am not alone in this feeling:

“‘I have to be careful not to abuse the friendship with the subject, but it’s a rapport that is somewhat false,’” said one. ‘In the edit room . . . you decide what your film is going to be, you have to put your traditional issues of friendship aside. You have to serve the truth.’ Another filmmaker unapologetically recalled alienating his subjects because he had, in the interest of the viewers and of his own artistic values, included frank comments that caused members of their own community to turn against them.” (6)

The fact is that my camera was the instrument by which the infernal crimes of the subject’s stepfather were brought to light. However, it is not the story that our subject would ultimately have chosen to tell. And I felt bad for the subject, but I couldn’t grant him the total anonymity he had suddenly craved.

It’s pretty much accepted that artists are not necessarily the most morally perfect people, in spite of the beauty or truth they might have brought into the world.

Ultimately, we became part of the lives of these subjects and still maintain contact with them, just as I have with some of mine. I now call my film a cautionary tale and have shown it at a rehab clinic for alcoholic women. Tough Bond’s filmmakers talk about their film more as a social mission to improve the lives of African children, not as an immersive and vivid intimate artistic record whose aesthetics and stark images have their own reason for existing.

“What do you see when you turn out the lights? I can’t tell you, but I know it’s mine.”–The Beatles, With a Little Help From My Friends

I admit I ultimately make films mostly for the aesthetic elements because, for me, they’re justification enough for a film’s existence. Whatever social usefulness there is about a film is only icing on the cake. Therefore, I can’t be immune from those who blame me for the moral chaos depicted, whether I am part of it or not. I have come to understand the feelings of the critic at the Q&A because they’re in line with feelings when making the film, and I understand our subject’s qualms.

If you’re out to spend years making an immersive documentary about difficult or troubled people’s lives, remember that your audience is viewing for the first time what you have already had time to process. But remember that when the lights go down in the theater, what they deeply feel about your intense and troubling material, is all their own.


  1. Brown, William P., The Genesis of Moral Imagination in the Bible, Michigan; Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1999
  2. “Honest Truths: Documentary Filmmakers on Ethical Challenges in Their Work.” The Center for Media & Social Impact at American University, 9 September 2009; http://www.cmsimpact.org/making-your-media-matter/documents/best-practices/honest-truths-documentary-filmmakers-ethical-chall
  3. “Robert J. Flaherty.” Wikipedia, Section on Nanook of the North; http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Robert_J._Flaherty
  4. “Honest Truths: Documentary Filmmakers on Ethical Challenges in Their Work.”
  5. Ibid.
  6. Ibid.

Film web links

For I Know My Weakness http://www.shadowsandclouds.com/index.php

Tough Bond http://www.villagebeat.org/projects/tough-bond

Water Like Stone http://waterlikestonefilm.com

Purgatorio http://www.rrcinema.com

About The Author

John Dentino is a filmmaker and freelance writer.

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