‘Today’s documentary filmmakers are concerned by showing the truth of a situation.’
Edited by James Quinn, Adventures in the Lives of Others: Ethical Dilemmas in Factual Filmmaking is a fascinating exploration of the construction of and reaction to the documentary filmmaking process from those who are engaged in their making, from producers and directors to editors, who have written essays about the dilemmas and complications, as well as successes that their work has produced. The term ‘documentary’ covers a variety of media, from reality to reality TV and documented footage of actual events to, perhaps surprisingly, re-enactments. Indeed a notable example of re-enactment raises a multitude of issues when considering reconstructions of genocide acted by the perpetrators of the actual atrocities with seeming enthusiasm for their deeds. The Act of Killing (2013) from producer director André Singer recreates the Indonesian massacre of Chines by using ‘outrageous performances of the perpetrators’.
This book is about the filmmakers themselves and also discusses when they become part of the subject they are filming through their on-screen delivery. For example, Nick Broomfield’s important work sees its creator become a part of the side narrative in Aileen: Life and Death of a Serial Killer (2003). Similarly attention to the documentary director as star of the product in both premise and conception is considered in the reflections of reality documentarist Morgan Spurlock who made Super Size Me (2004) and notably contemplates his use of humour – ‘I think humour makes anything accessible’. This link between the documenter and the subject is inherent throughout this book, from the conceptual ideas through to those involved with the production process.
The moving documentary Mum and Me (2008) follows years in the life of its maker Sue Bourne and her relationship with her mother who is suffering from increasingly acute Alzheimer’s disease. Her essay discusses her daughter Hellen’s adversity to showing their struggles on screen – something many of the other contributors address, although their personal issues are sometimes less personal. The essence of the book lies with its individual essays, and not just the ideas of producers or directors (who all provide a major contribution) but also the perspectives on the production, the background, will, and determination of those willing to film and be filmed, away from the cellphone age and into an assumption of a former age, of deliberating situations to provide wider contexts through film. The documentary form has its place far beyond cosy TV decades of wonderful documentaries to protray worlds away that can be violent, naturalistic and scary.
Additional conflicts are raised with the means of filming the subject, such as when Man On Wire (2008) director James Marsh recalls the arguments with the film’s subject Philippe Petit about the inclusion of people in the film other than the instigator of the dramatic 1974 tightrope walk between the twin towers: ‘the artistic crime of the century.’ Further moral dilemmas, unresolvable but deeply profound to maker Brian Woods, are discussed in the deeply moving account of Mei Ming, to the point of recalling reactions that created poetry from a viewer so moved by a film which provides insights to personal dilemmas that realistically would be irreconcilable to resolve.
Taking the story of documentary film from its early feature example of Nanook of the North (1922 Robert J. Flaherty) with all the subsequent issues about depicting total realism that film has raised to questions about the responses to TV documentary series like Benefits Street (2014) or Driving School(1997), Adventures in the Lives of Others: Ethical Dilemmas in Factual Filmmaking challenges the reader, as the filmmakers challenge themselves, to consider the portrayal of reality, the decisions made and the responses to their work. This is a book that takes moral and ethical dimensions of documentary filmmaking to the forefront and at times, like the films it discusses, can make the reader feel enamoured, enlightened or, sometimes, mournful. Fascinating reading.