Assistant Professor of Communication at USF Garnet Butchart gave a lecture on ethics and cinema at the JerusalemCentre for Ethics at Mishkenot Sha’ananim in Jerusalem in July.
Butchart’s lecture was part of a Seminar on Documentary Filmmaking Ethics of the 28th Annual Jerusalem International Film Festival for which he served as a juror for the Israeli Documentary Film Awards on July 7-16.
Cinematographer Dan Geva invited Butchart to present his research on documentary filmmaking ethics, which had been published in the international journal, CommunicationTheory.
According to Butchart, the two main ethical issues in documentary filmmaking are participant consent and the audience’s right to know and to hear.
“People have the right to control their own image, and to avoid being manipulated in the process of filmmaking. People have a right to information about issues that concern the public, and documentary cinema is a major vehicle for providing this. The idea is that it should do so in a way that is not misleading,” Butchart said.
He argued that typically, documentary filmmakers are held to commons sense ideas about moral duties and obligations. But this limits the filmmaking process.
“This tends to put the documentary filmmaker into a box. I argue that because ethical issues are difficult to regulate through media policy, filmmakers are their own best judges of their ethical practices,” he said.
“My main argument is that ethics, in the context of documentary filmmaking, is usually confused with morals. Ethics and morals are not necessarily the same,” he said. “Morals are part of a set of known values and norms that structure a culture and that guide our actions. We often take these for granted. On the other hand, we can think of ethics as a practice. Ethics is devoted to what is not yet known or cannot be recognized from the prevailing norms and values we take for granted.”
In the context of documentary cinema, according to Butchart, ethics is not a moral problem, but rather, a semiotic problem.
“What that means is that ethics is an issue of perception—of looking at people and of making images of them. It is not quite a matter of right and wrong,” Butchart said. “I argue that some of the ethical difficulties in documentary can be solved semiotically—that is, if filmmakers include the presence of the camera, as well as themselves, as part of the documentary. This helps to break the illusion of the movie.”
He offers two techniques: “doubling” and “redoubling” the gaze of documentary.
The first technique is when filmmakers include moments when participants look directly into the camera lens, address the filmmaker directly, or acknowledge the presence of the camera in some way, he said.
“When participants look into the lens of the camera, this puts into question the role of the filmmaker, and that in itself is an ethical practice,” he said.
The second technique is when the filmmaker reflects on the practice of making the documentary.
“When a filmmaker shows audiences the process through which a movie is made, this is also an ethical practice. It demonstrates that the filmmaker is self-reflexive about the process,” he said.
Butchart said that Israeli documentary filmmakers are more progressive in this regard.
“They often include in their movies images about the making of documentary. In so doing, documentary is disclosed as a process of interpretation rather than as factual film. This helps to address many of the ethical problems typically linked to participant consent and to the rights of audiences to be informed about issues of public concern,” he said.
Butchart said that his teaching, research and lectures are all connected through his critical approach to mass media and human communication.
“I emphasize a critical approach to mass media and human communication. I encourage my students to think carefully about the way in which media images help shape how we think about ourselves and the world,” he said.
“The image making techniques I talked about in my lecture can help to cultivate among audiences a healthy skepticism about images in the media. They remind us that even the most objective forms of cinema, such as documentary, are products of interpretation and careful composition,” Butchart said.