I’ve got collateral damage on my mind. And I’m not thinking about what’s happening in Iraq — what’s bothering me is the potential path of hurt that documentary films themselves might leave behind in their wake. Believe me, I know that documentaries do the world good. Through their social activism, political advocacy and plain ol’ artistry, they’ve improved lives. How many art forms can claim to have gotten people out of jail (Thin Blue Line) or redefined the way American’s look at the environment (An Inconvenient Truth)?
But, sometimes when I watch a documentary that features an unsuspecting innocent who is used to forward a film’s storyline, I get a little queasy inside because a person is being used. Sure, ultimately, the greater mission of the film may be served — and especially when the film itself is a piece of important truth-telling, it might be worth it to leave some bumps. Hey, it can be good fun to see security guards pushing a camera person out of a lobby to reveal the insidiously evil power of the particular power-that-be (as in most of what we’ve seen in the Michael Moore oeuvre). Those guys are just doing their jobs anyway.

But sometimes I see docs in which innocent worker-bees embarrass themselves because the film is trying to make a point about the larger situation — and I’m reminded that filmmakers are constantly on a see-saw between doing what’s right to the people in the film and what’s right for the film itself. Ideally, the two are always parallel. But who thinks we’re living in an ideal world?

I recently asked a filmmaker about this issue — and he agreed that it was something he sometimes found challenging, too. Even though he might feel “personally very sorry” about interviewing people who were “too fatigued” to be articulate, capturing those very scenes on camera might sometimes be the best way to illustrate the point he was trying to make about their situation — something that might be largely beyond their control.

I guess, like much of what happens in our un-ideal world, it comes down to the ends often justifies the means. So, I’m just wondering: Can you think of any docs that unfairly treat their subjects? For that matter, have you ever been personally hurt by a doc?

Published by

Tom Roston
Tom Roston is a guest columnist for POV's documentary blog. He is a former Premiere magazine senior editor, who graduated from Brown University and started his career in journalism at The Nation and then Vanity Fair. Tom's freelance work has appeared in The New York Times, The Guardian, The Los Angeles Times, The Hollywood Reporter and other publications. He has written several Kindle Singles, including the bestselling Kindle Singles Interview: Ken Burns. Tom's current list of favorite documentaries are: 1. Koyanisqaatsi by Godfrey Reggio; 2. Hoop Dreams by Steve James; 3.Stories We Tell by Sarah Polley; 4.Crumb by Terry Zwigoff; 5. Montage of Heck by Brett Morgen