The participant in a documentary film must have equal or more stakes involved in the making of the film than the filmmaker.


The participant must care about and believe in the telling of the story as much as I do. Before production begins, thorough research must be conducted as to why this person wants to share their story and for what purpose.   I will only feel at ease engaging with the participant if they are allowed to have ownership over their role in the film.  For this to happen, they must feel as if they have benefited in some way whether it be for self expression, exposure, empowerment of representation, cathartic release or the believe in the power of disseminating documentary “truth”.  This position is two-fold. Not only does it empower the participant, but it has the potential to create a stronger reaction and identification to the film’s message.  Charles Wolfe writes in his essay, entitled “Direct Address and the Social Documentary Photograph,” “In recent years, [criticism] has frequently been leveled at social documentary projects of various kinds; that such work feeds the desires of readers and spectators rather than serves the needs of the victims it portrays.  Such a process involves the expropriation of the image of the victim on behalf of a symbolic activity beyond the victim’s control.  But what then do we make of the photographed figure whose glance meets that of the camera…as long as we are wiling to read the look as one of address – as at once conscious and focused – the figure as textual subject penetrates a discursive field.  If the living subject has looked at a camera, this textual subject looks as if at us.”  If the subject is fully aware of their representation and role in the creation of the documentary piece, their engagement and acceptance with the subject matter is irrefutable and it is hoped that the message of the film cannot be ignored.




Documentary storytelling is not the ultimate truth but is a representation of the truth, as I see it.


I have a responsibility to those that I am portraying in documentary film to not manipulate their words or actions.  But I must always remember that I am committed to the story and thus am entitled to editorial control and a certain threshold of artistic license. This responsibility is not taken lightly as I am fully aware of the privileged position that I may take.   In the words of Walker Evans,  “It does require a certain arrogance to see and to choose.  I feel myself walking on a tightrope instead of on the ground.  With the camera, it’s all or nothing…the camera takes on the character and personality of the handler.  The mind works on the machine – through it, rather. As the creator, I am forever bound to the process and ultimately my work should always be a reflection of myself and the principles that I stand behind.




There are stories that I cannot or must not tell.


I must always ask myself if I am the best person to represent a particular story.  In the article, “The Problem of Speaking for Others”, author Linda Alcoff states, “…how what is said and gets heard depends on who says it, and who says it will affect the style and language in which it is stated, which will in turn affect its perceived significance (for specific hearers).” I will not automatically exclude myself from telling any story but will only be motivated to participate unless my background, education, beliefs, values, opinions and interest can benefit the subject matter or when it dictates, to provide an alternative voice regarding the issues involved.




“All the world’s a stage and we are the actors” – Documentary is performance.


Cinema Verite, although a powerful mode of documentary filmmaking in its time, is now out dated. Catching life and people “unaware” is no longer plausible.  The people formerly known as the audience are becoming the creators and co-authors of media.  And the construction of events for the camera is now so commonplace that earlier issues surrounding the creative treatment of actuality are now moot points.  In his article, “What Type of Documentary Art There?” Bill Nichols points out that, “the underlying act of being present at an event but filming it as if absent, as if the filmmaker were simply a “fly on the wall” invites debate as to how much of what we see would be the same if the camera were not there or how much would differ if the filmmaker’s presence were more readily acknowledged.  Although awareness of the media does not always translate into media literacy, participants and audiences are so savvy to the ways of media construction nowadays, that to not perform to the camera is to risk the ultimate re-manipulation of identity as it can occur not just in production but in post-production as well.




Truth is stranger than fiction.  But fictional representation can be more truthful than a documentary style of representation.


Claims to truth in documentary representation will always be debatable, therefore to ensure absolute artistic license, sliding the scale of creative interpretation to pure drama is the only way to ensure full autonomy over the subject matter.




Documentary is not art. 


Documentary film can be artistic but it is not art.  I do not create documentary solely for myself but as method for harnessing facts as a means to generate understanding.  Documentary is a statement, a reaction to the environment and systems around us.   And I agree, so it art.  However, as a documentarian, I am bound to the audience and owe them an opinion weighted in fact and careful research.  Art should not bear the weight of this responsibility. But documentary filmmaking must.




I will never put myself in a film ala Michael Moore.


However, I acknowledge that every story I delve into is a shade of myself that I wish to know more about and thus is the reason why I explore various lifestyles, people and subject matter.




Documentary storytelling is a valid method of coping with trauma for participants, filmmaker and most of all, the audience. 


Documentary stories are the fragmented reflections of humanity’s psyche.  We represent stories of trauma in the optimistic hope that we can start each day with a new tabula rasa from which to work. To get to this point, however, it is the act of speaking out and ultimately of witnessing that is the most important release when dealing with stories of trauma. In Cathy Caruth’s article “Trauma; Explorations in Memory,” she quotes Schreiber Weitz as saying, “People have said that only survivors themselves understand what happened.  I’ll go a step further.  We don’t…I don’t’ know.  So there is a dilemma.  What do we do?  Do we not talk about it?  Elie Wiesel has said many times that silence is the only proper response but then most of us, including him, feel that not to speak is impossible.  To speak is impossible, and not to speak is impossible.”  As documentary storytellers, we are obligated to speak for those who cannot and must provide an outlet of expression for those who can and want to speak.




I must be invited.


To gain access to a group of participants, especially those in sub cultures for which participation and acceptance is a guarded issue, I must be invited into the group and accepted before I can begin to portray the issues surrounding the group.  A great kinship and mutual understanding can and should occur between filmmaker and subject but the type of “friendship” that results must be acknowledged as different as I am always bound to portray this person’s story for the story’s sake. The politics of our friendship must not interfere with the outcome of the story.  Ultimately, the participant does not have to like how he/she has been portrayed but hopefully will be challenged by what they see as reflected on screen.  Furthermore, they must always be allowed to see the final result of their participation.




Once I decide to release my documentary film or project into the world, it is no longer mine.


It continues to exist only if an audience decides to let it live through their actions as the ultimate reaction to my work.  Although I am accountable to the images that I create, to the message that I portray, and to the people that I work with, the audience decides if they are to become co-owners of the material through creative commons and the work, from that point on, will have a life outside of my creation.  





Wolfe, Charles (1987).  “Direct Address and the Social Documentary Photograph: Annie Mae Gudger as Negative Subject.” Wide Angle 9:1, 59-70.

Katz, Leslie (1981). “An Interview with Walker Evans” in Vickie Goldberg (Ed.) Photography in Print: Writings from 1816 to Present. NY: Simon & Shuster, 358-369.

Alcoff, Linda (1991-2).  “The Problem for Speaking for Others.” Cultural Critique, Winter.  NC: Oxford University Press, 5-32.

Nichols, Bill.  (2001). “What Types of Documentary Art There?”  Introduction to Documentary. Bloomington & Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 99-138.

Caruth, Cathy (1995).  “Preface,” “Introduction I” and “Introduction II.”  In Cathy Caruth (Ed.) Trauma; Explorations in Memory. Quote from Schreiber Weitz.  Baltimore and London: The John Hopkins University Press, vii-ix; 3-12; 151-157.


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