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: Filmmakers and Their Subjects

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Documentary filmmakers use their subjects to make films. The subjects are sometimes unaware of how they are being used, so one could make the case that they are being exploited. One way to make up for that exploitation is for the filmmakers to compensate them as advocates or financially. Of course, if the filmmaker and the subjects become close during the making of the film, then things can get sticky…

This dizzying ethical conundrum was brought up in a good piece, “Documentaries and Ties that Bind and Unravel,” that appeared in The New York Times this weekend, in which reporter John Anderson kicked the subject around. It’s something we’ve done here at Doc Soup in a couple of ways, including the “Whatever Happened to. . . ” series. I find it fascinating because I’m always interested in how the real life behind the making of a film about real life plays out, if you know what I mean.

Anderson delivers an even-keeled, objective report, interviewing director Andrew Jarecki as well as the subject of his brilliant Capturing the Friedmans, Jesse Friedman, who describes his life as “a mess.” The main thrust is the question of how close should filmmakers get to their subjects, and should they compensate them in return for the access to their lives. We get a view of the personal stakes as well, hearing from Errol Morris, who maintains relationships with his subjects, while Frederic Wiseman doesn’t.

The piece ends with Ross Kauffman, the co-director of Born into Brothels, which is where Moviefone blogger Christopher Campbell picks up on the subject. A more appropriate phrase than “pick up,” might be “sinks his teeth into,” as he does in a post that appeared a week earlier than the Times article. (Coincidence? I don’t know.)

Campbell’s take is as opinionated as Anderson’s is not, as he calls the advocacy work behind Brothels as “self-serving.” He appears to have a lot of “hate” for Brothels, which leads up to his discussion of the new doc, Waste Land, by Lucy Walker, which is about poor recycling workers involved in an art project in Brazil. He’s not overjoyed with Walker’s film either, namely for its part in advocating for its subjects. But Campbell doesn’t entirely dismiss her.

Although Campbell states early on that each of us are on one or the other side of the spectrum on this issue (one side: never get involved with your subjects; the other side, help your subjects as best you can), he himself appears to be somewhere in-between, condemning Brothels for advocating, but giving Waste Land more slack. (He makes the case that Waste Land at least has more integrity in its advocacy.)

But that makes sense to me. The filmmaker’s responsibility to his or her subjects is too complex and relative to the particular film, to be able to have one position on this subject. Hey, as long as the movie is good (e.g. Born into Brothels), then it’s alright by me.

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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