Tom RostonIndependent journalist Tom Roston checks in and writes about the world of documentaries in his column, Doc Soup.

You can follow Tom on Twitter @DocSoupMan.

Doc Soup: Do Docs Hurt the Worker Bees to Get at the Queen?

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I’ve got collateral damage on my mind. And I’m not thinking about what’s happening in Iraq — what’s bothering me is the potential path of hurt that documentary films themselves might leave behind in their wake. Believe me, I know that documentaries do the world good. Through their social activism, political advocacy and plain ol’ artistry, they’ve improved lives. How many art forms can claim to have gotten people out of jail (Thin Blue Line) or redefined the way American’s look at the environment (An Inconvenient Truth)?
But, sometimes when I watch a documentary that features an unsuspecting innocent who is used to forward a film’s storyline, I get a little queasy inside because a person is being used. Sure, ultimately, the greater mission of the film may be served — and especially when the film itself is a piece of important truth-telling, it might be worth it to leave some bumps. Hey, it can be good fun to see security guards pushing a camera person out of a lobby to reveal the insidiously evil power of the particular power-that-be (as in most of what we’ve seen in the Michael Moore oeuvre). Those guys are just doing their jobs anyway.

But sometimes I see docs in which innocent worker-bees embarrass themselves because the film is trying to make a point about the larger situation — and I’m reminded that filmmakers are constantly on a see-saw between doing what’s right to the people in the film and what’s right for the film itself. Ideally, the two are always parallel. But who thinks we’re living in an ideal world?

I recently asked a filmmaker about this issue — and he agreed that it was something he sometimes found challenging, too. Even though he might feel “personally very sorry” about interviewing people who were “too fatigued” to be articulate, capturing those very scenes on camera might sometimes be the best way to illustrate the point he was trying to make about their situation — something that might be largely beyond their control.

I guess, like much of what happens in our un-ideal world, it comes down to the ends often justifies the means. So, I’m just wondering: Can you think of any docs that unfairly treat their subjects? For that matter, have you ever been personally hurt by a doc?

Tom Roston
Tom Roston
Tom Roston is a guest columnist for POV's documentary blog. He comes to us as a ten-year veteran of Premiere magazine, where he was a Senior Editor, and where he wrote the column, Notes from the Dream Factory. Tom was born and raised in New York City. He graduated from Brown University and started his career in journalism at The Nation and then Vanity Fair. Tom has also written for The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, GQ, New York, Elle and other publications. Tom's favorite documentaries are: 1. Koyanisqaatsi - Godfrey Reggio 2. Hoop Dreams - Steve James 3. The Up series - Michael Apted 4. Crumb - Terry Zwigoff 5. Capturing the Friedmans - Andrew Jarecki