Initiative post- Ethics in Documentary Making

When I watched ‘Dont look back’ directed by DA Pennebaker I asked myself a question, what responsibilities should a director have towards his subjects, keeping in mind that the secondary characters in that documentary e.g journalists, were his subjects as well and the way they were mocked and shown a bad image of them was a connotative message in this documentary. Did they knew that they were being recorded?, if they knew they were being recorded, did they knew that the footage would be for personal use or for commercial purpose. 

It is a common belief that documentaries have a clear social and ethical purpose (Ellis, 2012: 135). It is important for a student of documentary to understand the key ethical concepts before the production stages of filming particular documentary, they have to ask themselves the following questions, the potential impact of the project? The intended audience? Who might benefit from the film? Who could be hurt by the film? If these questions are correctly addressed and keeps them at the foreground of projects then they are able to take an ethically informed position because human nature is involved and the relationship between a filmmaker and his subjects will evolve from time to time as it is a dynamic and story will change alone (Krawitz,2010: 48). Practically, it is not just the subjects, the relationship with the viewers and to maintain their faith in the accuracy and integrity of the filmmakers work is also an ethical concern (Aufderheide et al, 2009: 6)

“Ethics is not set of rules, it is about taking responsibilities for your decisions” (Quinn, Ethic Behind The Lens, 2013). Before making a documentary, the director has to have a point of view. It is one of the most discussed issue in the documentary making of whether it is possible for a documentary film maker to be objective. This involves two types of attitudes, one philosophical where it is possible for a filmmaker to be objective and other an emotional one where the presence of the camera and the crew alters the behaviors of the subject (Eckhardt, 2010: 150). In Pennebaker’s “Don’t Look back’, the filmmaker follows the emotional line, Bob Dylan’s behavior has a contrast when he is facing on camera talking to the journalists and when he is talking to his fans.

In a relationship between a filmmaker and a subject, a critical issue is of the power as it is understood to be something that a filmmaker has control of the image of the participant in documentary (Nash, 2011: 4). Many filmmakers have admitted that they don’t tell the whole truth of their motivation to get access to the subject or to get the scene what they want (Aufderheide et al, 2009: 14). Ellis suggests that although subjects may have been exploited, but it was necessary to the aim of documentary (Ellis, 2012: 142). In ‘Don’t look back’, although Bob Dylan is the main subject concerned, but there are other subjects that appear minimal in the documentary but play a vital role into being exploited. These subjects are journalists who interview Bob Dylan but Bob plays mind games with them tells them that the truth is hidden from the people and they will lose by printing the real truth. One of reasons which I may feel that Pennebaker might not have got their consent is because he was using a handheld camera. The journalists might have felt this to be a home camera and perhaps they thought that Dylan’s crew might be filming his tour and didn’t bothered to be worried about it. A filmmaker should work in a good-faith relationship that would not put the subjects at risk (Aufderheidi,et al, 2009: 6). The participants are victimized and thus the filmmaker must give up the controlling position and take stance of supporter (Nash, 2011: 5). So by being honest, the subjects can participate in the project without false assumptions (Krawitz, 2010: 50). The Subjects have to be in a frame of mind in which they can take responsibility for their actions (Ellis, 2012: 143).


1, Aufderheide, Patricia, and et al. (2009). Honest Truths: Documentary Filmmakers on Ethical Challenges. Retrieved from–_Documentary_Filmmakers_on_Ethical_Challenges_in_Their_Work.pdf

2, Ellis, J 2012, Documentary : Witness and Self-revelation, Routledge, London., pp. 135-54.

3 ,Ethics Behind The Lens, 2013. Video. USA. Chicago Humanities Festival. Availability:

4, Krawitz, J. 2010, “Treading Softly: ETHICS & DOCUMENTARY PRODUCTION”, Knowledge Quest, vol. 38, no. 4, pp. 48-51.

5, Nash, Kate. (2011). Beyond the frame: researching documentary ethics. Retrieved from

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