Filmmaking is rife with moral pitfalls. Three docs, including Hulu's Untitled Amazing Johnathan Documentary, demonstrate how filmmakers can respect or betray the trust of their subjects.
A documentary film is like a glass case. It is a life, only partially captured, frozen in time and context, and on display. It is encased in the subjectivity of the filmmaker that made it. However great the pains the director has taken to preserve the subject’s humanity, the person depicted inevitably becomes an object: to be seen, to be judged, to be sympathized with, or victimized.
As such, to make a documentary is to navigate a minefield of ethical dilemmas, chief among them the issue of how to best portray the subject. Three films that debuted at the Sundance Film Festival earlier this year all grappled with their own complex moral questions of representation. The director Beniamino Barrese trains his camera on a fiercely unwilling subject in The Disappearance of My Mother.
In The Magic Life of V, Tonislav Hristov films a young woman in extremely intimate moments as she confronts her history of abuse. The filmmaker Benjamin Berman follows a magician who receives a terminal diagnosis in Untitled Amazing Johnathan Documentary, which was just released on Hulu. As the movie goes on, Berman comes to suspect perfidy, leading to an onscreen breakdown of trust.
Because each is centered on a single person, these documentaries all hinge on access—on the willingness of their subjects to expose their lives for the camera. Barrese had an obstinate subject; Berman lacked confidence in his. Encountering resistance led both filmmakers to turn the cameras on themselves. Meanwhile, despite having cultivated a rapport with his subject, Hristov keeps the film focused on her. These varying approaches illuminate the uneasy power disparity that inevitably arises in documentary’s most crucial relationship: between the filmmaker and the subject.
In her seminal essay “On Photography,” Susan Sontag wrote, “To photograph is to appropriate the thing photographed. It means putting oneself into a certain relation to the world that feels like knowledge—and, therefore, like power.” Barrese’s subject—the director’s own mother—is familiar with this tension. A retired fashion model whose experience in front of the camera led her to “dislike images,” Benedetta Barzini recoils from her son’s often invasive attempts to document her life after she announces her plan to “disappear.” Barzini makes it clear that she deplores being reduced to a visual object because “people just vanish inside the concept of beauty.” In one scene, Barzini repeatedly asks Barrese to turn off the camera. “What scene would you like to film, then?” he replies. “The only scene I would have liked to do is me breaking your camera,” Barzini scoffs.
“I always talk about the paradox of making a documentary in terms of exploiting a subject for the sake of telling a story,” Barrese told me. “You [the filmmaker] are getting a lot out of it. And what is at stake for the person that is represented? I liked the fact that this relationship with my mom was allowing me to confront this.”
"I realized I was hiding behind the camera, so I exposed myself."
Despite Barzini’s protests, Barrese continues to point the camera at his mother. At times, the dynamic is uncomfortable, and in another context, it could even be seen as abusive. But Barrese’s familial relationship with Barzini gives the director some liberties, and he uses them to help even the playing field. He begins to film himself. “Throughout the film, I realized I was hiding behind the camera, so I exposed myself in ways that often were very uncomfortable, and, I think, embarrassing,” he told me. “It took a bit of courage. But I think it's the best revenge that my mom could get on me.”
That “revenge” alters the power dynamic and rescues The Disappearance of My Mother from an exploitative interpretation. Because of her status as a well-known public figure, Barzini is cognizant of the possibility of being misrepresented and has experience in pushing back. In one scene, for example, she squats to pee in front of the camera in order to reclaim some sense of control over her image—to invert the romantic female stereotype, as Barrese told me. Both Barrese’s decision to include himself in the film and Barzini’s insistence on calling attention to the camera render The Disappearance of My Mother a “reflexive documentary,” a term Bill Nichols uses to describe the filmmaker’s desire to attend to the device as well as the effect. Filmmakers such as Barrese accomplish this by making the conventions of representation apparent, thereby challenging the impression of reality, and giving power back to their subjects.
But the luxury of manipulating one’s own image is not afforded to everyone who participates in a documentary — particularly those from marginalized communities. This is why social-issue documentaries often fall prey to the “tradition of the victim,” as Brian Winston termed it, which sees the filmmaker misrepresent the subject, who has often suffered misfortune, by either victimizing or romanticizing them. (Complicating things further is the identity of many of these storytellers: In 2016, 70 percent of documentarians were white.) Director Mitchell Block illustrated this potential ethical pitfall in his 1973 film No Lies, which masqueraded as a documentary, but was, in fact, a scripted film performed by two actors. In the film, a young man visits his friend at her apartment. He has his camera in tow and begins nonchalantly filming her as they spend time together.
Then, a casual question he asks reveals a traumatic event: the young woman says she has recently been raped. He begins a line of increasingly aggressive questioning. When he expresses doubt about the legitimacy of the abuse, the young woman appears distressed. Nichols has written that when perceived as a documentary, as Block intended, No Lies “becomes, in a sense, a second rape, a new form of abuse, and, more importantly, it becomes a comment on this very form of abuse and the risk of turning people into victims so that we can learn about their suffering and misery.”
"Before you put a camera in someone's face, try to be as close as possible to that person."
In The Magic Life of V, Hristov follows his Veera, a young Finnish woman, over five years while she confronts the abuse she suffered as a child at the hands of her father. The film could have succumbed to the tradition of the victim had Hristov chosen to cast Veera in that role. He avoided this by giving her the opportunity, and the agency, to rewrite her own story.
Hristov met Veera at a Live-Action Role-Playing (LARPing) event, where gamers create characters and immerse themselves in a detailed fantasy world, akin to a video game played out in real life. Hristov told me that after he befriended her and earned her trust, it became clear that Veera was LARPing to cope with her troubled history. She agreed to let him film her as she began the process of exhuming the very real demons that she had been symbolically fighting for so long.
From the audience’s perspective, it appears that Hristov gained unmitigated access to Veera’s life. He films her in extended therapy sessions. He films her discussing her abuse with her mother for the first time. He films her asking her mentally-challenged brother why he appears to be self-harming. He films her meeting with her father, after being estranged from him for 15 years. Many of these scenes are tense, sensitive, and emotionally charged, and could be construed as violations of privacy. Hollywood Reporter, in their review of the film, wrote that V “feels like a betrayal of the trust Veera has placed in the filmmakers. It’s impossible to gauge, from the finished film, to what extent the protagonist is on board with exposing her own painful past. … This odd uncertainty gives the bulk of the feature a slightly bitter and unnecessarily voyeuristic tone.”
"The camera gave her permission to tell her story to herself."
A closer look into Hristov’s process reveals a more nuanced story of an aboveboard friendship between filmmaker and subject, the latter whom would use the camera as a tool for her self-healing. “I got the feeling that Veera and her mother dealt with this trauma individually, but never actually talked about it,” Hristov revealed. "So the camera gave her permission to tell her story to herself. It was a trigger for her to ask these new questions.” Hristov emphasized that he respected Veera’s boundaries throughout her journey. “I know what it is to be the main character in a story,” he said, referring to the fact that he has made a documentary about himself. “You have to be really careful that you don't harm people.”
Hristov also circumvents the tradition of the victim by employing an effective use of informed consent. This principle, which generally informs the ethics of medical experimentation, states that participants in a study should be briefed on any possible consequences. Hristov openly expressed his intentions for the film with Veera and empowered her to speak up when she didn’t feel comfortable filming.
A 2009 study on ethical challenges documentarians face — among the only studies of its kind — found that filmmakers, like Hristov, were acutely aware of the sensitivities of representation, and attempted to ameliorate sticky issues with a combination of situational ethics and good faith. The study’s authors wrote that the participants “commonly shared such principles as, in relation to subjects, ‘Do no harm’ and ‘Protect the vulnerable.’”
“Before you put a camera in someone's face, try to be as close as possible to that person,” Hristov said of his own process. “Know exactly how this person feels about the subject of the film. Earn their trust. Then, never betray this trust. This is the number-one rule for a documentary filmmaker. There are naked people in front of you, and you have to respect that in your film.”
That fundamental trust begins to break down on-screen in Berman’s Untitled Amazing Johnathan Documentary. Johnathan Szeles, a successful comedic magician, is diagnosed with terminal cardiomyopathy and given one year to live. Berman follows him for three years before beginning to wonder whether he can take the magician at face value. Szeles is a performer, after all. Deceit and illusion are the bedrock of his craft. Could he be faking his prognosis? Berman debates whether the magician is gulling him for much of the film’s runtime; if that were the case, the entire endeavor would be a sunk cost.
Self-doubt is a common conundrum for documentarians, whose livelihoods rest upon the risky bet that following a story in real-time — and over long periods — will pay off. In Berman’s film, when that payoff begins to seem unlikely, the relationship between filmmaker and subject is thrown into sharp relief. In a moment of respite from his indignation, Berman begins to reflect on his responsibility to Szeles. “I’m concerned that I’m using him for his death to tell a death story,” the filmmaker confides to his own father, who retorts, “You don’t wanna exploit him, but at the same time, you’ve got a movie to make.”
The filmmaker allows his own insecurity to take over.
When Berman betrays his skepticism to Szeles, the magician walks out on the interview. “You’re just waiting ‘till I die, and I’m not dying, so you’re not getting the ending you want,” he says. “Are you disappointed that I’m not dying in your time frame?”
Cutting his losses would have been an ethical decision for Berman to make when he began to doubt his ability to construct a film with the material he was getting. Instead, the filmmaker allows his own insecurity to take over. In this respect the documentary is reflexive—which should, in theory, afford Szeles some power, as it did Barzini. But Berman includes himself in the film at the expense of his subject. He compromises both the integrity of the film and Szeles’s dignity.
The three films variously offer a window into the way filmmakers navigate the ethical dimensions of single subject-driven documentaries. Each is a case study of the tension between the filmmaker’s right to creative expression and the subject’s right to be protected in the process of representation.
Nichols, in his essay “Documentary Modes of Representation,” offers a set of questions for filmmakers to consider in lieu of an industry-wide, accepted set of ethical standards:
Has the filmmaker intruded upon people's lives in ways will irrevocably alter them, perhaps for the worse, in order to make a film? Has his or her need to build a career out of the observation of others led to representations about the nature of the project its probable effects on participants in disingenuous forms? Has he or not only sought the informed consent of the participants but made it possible for informed consent to be understood and given? Does the evidence of the film convey a sense of respect for the lives of others or have they simply been used as signifiers in someone else's discourse?
Barrese directly interrogates the skewed dynamic between the image-maker and the imaged, and in doing so, gives his mother a voice. Hristov gives Veera authorship over her own narrative by respectfully observing her in the process of reshaping her story on her own terms. Berman, meanwhile, fails to responsibly answer the aforementioned questions: not only has he made Szeles’s life worse for having entered it, but he has acted disingenuously and has used Szeles as a puppet in his own narrative.
A year following the heated confrontation in The Untitled Amazing Johnathan Documentary, Berman’s movie gets an ending. After months of no contact, Berman discovers that the magician will be passing through town to celebrate his mother’s birthday at her nursing home. In the final scene of the film, Berman observes Szeles from the sidelines of the intimate gathering. He appears sheepish and remorseful. For the first time in the film, he appears an outsider in someone else’s story.
“I think I owe you some apologies,” Berman says, pulling Szeles, who is now in a wheelchair, aside. “I brought some baggage of my own to making this film, and I don’t think that was fair to you.”
The film ends on a final shot of Berman, who seems to concede that questioning Szeles’s motives was a projection of his own ethically fraught process. A mea culpa, from filmmaker to subject.