Academic journal article Post Script

"Le Rapport De Face A Face" in Digital Documentary

Academic journal article Post Script

"Le Rapport De Face A Face" in Digital Documentary

Article excerpt

"Do no harm" remains the foundation for the ethics--a system of morality applied to behavior--of the documentary filmmaker into the digital era. But digital affordances do impact, although far from transformatively, on the ethical position of all three parties involved in the act of documenting--the filmer, the filmed and the spectator. To assess the extent of this a Levenasian framework is deployed to suggest that the central site of ethical behavior relates to the face-to-face interaction (le raport deface a face) of the filmmaker and those being filmed (les autres). The spectator constitutes a more distant third party (la troisieme personage). For this figure, the ethics of watching digital images remain unchanged except that the increased possibility of digital image manipulation requires an increase of awareness. For the filmer--the filmmaker--too, the duty of care is also unchanged--grounded in the principle that no harm should be offered to either Tautre or la troisieme personage. This constraint on free expression persists especially because of the increased temptations afforded by the ease of digital image manipulation. These need generally to be resisted in the name of image integrity best expressed through a self-impose ethics of tact. For those filmed, the digital can be far more transformative. Its accessibility affords the filmed the possibility of an escape from their--all too often, social victim--position. They can now meld with the filmer and take in all the duty of care that requires.


Documentary Ethics in the Digital Age

Filmmakers, like all others, operate in a face-to-face relationship (en rapport de face a face as Emmanuel Levinas has it) with their fellows in the social sphere (Levinas, Otherwise 141, 166; Entre Nous 174, 195-6). The foundational Millian injunction that, in this relation, no harm be done (leaving aside for the moment all questions as to the nature of "harm" and how its effects are to be determined) applies, as it does for all activities (Mill 27). If the filmmaker is to behave ethically then "do no harm"--the "harm principle"--remains the prime moral requirement, unchanged into the 21st century. The basic duty of care is reinforced by the common law from tort through contract to defamation, but unethical behavior is far from being necessarily actionable in court. Lesser harms are not so sanctioned and one can be dishonorable, immoral or disreputable and remain well within the law. And, further to confuse, also in play in the matter of "speech" is the potentially oppositional right of free expression; and that antinomy can only be resolved by insisting, specifically, that the "harm" caused in the act of communicating be narrowly defined and any claimed damage be thoroughly investigated for both cause and extent. The right, after all, is meaningless when no guarantee of freedom is required because the expression is nowhere being threatened with constraint. It can only be said to exist if it embraces a right to offend and that, therefore, causing such offense be not inevitably seen as a harm.

When first considering this issue in print in 1988, it seemed to me that expression then trumped care to the point where any filmmaker had an overweening power over those they chose to film. Therefore, although contrary, at least in spirit, to the free speech right, it seemed nevertheless reasonable to suggest that an ethical filmmaker ought to adopt a self-denying ordinance, taking on extensive responsibilities towards those who help make their work. My position was that, instead of an untrammeled insistence on their own freedom, filmmakers ought usually to protect the subject in ways, for instance, enshrined in the Nuremberg Protocols. Free expression was then sacrosanct. It was inviolate enough to suggest, in the name of ethical documentary production, that it be voluntarily circumscribed in this way (34-57).

Now the situation has markedly changed because, over the past three decades, what can be called the Enlightenment settlement in the West--including the capstone right of free speech--has been increasingly interrogated. …

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