What are the ethical dilemmas of telling real stories in war time? And, to what extent will filmmakers go to tell those stories?

Pamela Cohn

Originally from Los Angeles, California, Pamela now makes her home in Berlin, Germany.Currently, she is a contributing writer and editor for several publications and websites such as FILMMAKER Magazine, DOX Magazine, BOMB Magazine, Guernica, Senses of Cinema, and Desistfilm.

This past autumn in New York, DOX’s Pamela Cohn moderated a panel discussion with four award-winning documentarians as part of a festival called The Royal Flush Fest which takes place in Manhattan’s East Village. They were discussing how non fiction filmmakers grapple with the personal and ethical dilemmas of making films in war-torn regions:

It was Christmas-time of 2003 and filmmaker, Andrew Berends (The Blood of My Brother, When Adnan Comes Home, Delta Boys) remembers being at Pottery Barn, a high-end housewares store. It was nine months after the US had invaded the country of Iraq. The store was warm, cosy and well lit and he remembers looking at a $4000 leather chair and thinking, “Is this what a country looks like when it’s at war?”

Last year, Eric Daniel Metzgar ( The Chances of the World Changing, Life. Support. Music., Reporter) overcame his visceral fear of traveling to Africa to have dinner with a warlord. At the behest of producer, Mikaela Beardsley, he accompanied New York Times’ journalist, Nicholas Kristoff, to the dark heart of the DR Congo.

Everything post-9/11 struck Laura Poitras (Flag Wars, My Country, My Country, The Oath) with the same sense of disbelief as she watched people in smart clothes walk busily down the streets of Manhattan with their lattés and expensive mobile phones stuck to one ear.

Ross Kauffman (Born Into Brothels, Wait For Me, Project Kashmir, In a Dream) took himself and a camera to the red light district of Calcutta after merely seeing some compelling footage of children of prostitutes which he had received from a woman doing a project there called Kids With Cameras. This woman, Zana Briski, turned out to be his codirector for Born Into Brothels.

Dr. Riyadh at Abu Ghraib prison. © Paul Cobaugh
Dr. Riyadh at Abu Ghraib prison. © Paul Cobaugh

All of these documentarians are award-winning, highly regarded filmmakers in their field, winners and nominees of Academy Awards, Peabodys, Emmys, International Documentary Association Courage Under Fire Awards, Independent Spirit Awards, etc. – recognised by their peers, and the film-going community at large, as some of the top artists working in non-fiction cinema today.

The panel was meant to highlight filmmakers who had “risked life and limb to tell important stories of people in war-torn and impoverished places around the world.” One topic was: and they asked, “What is the extent a filmmaker will go in order to tell a story?”

Berends, Poitras, Kauffman and Metzgar certainly tit the bill as risk-takers and consummate storytellers. However, each and every one of them was slightly horrified at the notion of being touted as brave souls cavalierly going into war zones to shoot stories. It is a bit more complicated than that, number one. And number two, that is not really the “duress” part, necessarily. The duress, as any independent artist knows, is getting a feature-length movie made, completed, distributed and seen. A brave and foolhardy feat, indeed.

“My intention is to create a less comfortable ride for the audience.”

Andrew Berends, the winner of the aforesaid Courage Under Fire Award for his work in Iraq making his two moving and compelling films, experienced personal upset about what was happening – as a human being, not as a “journalist” or “documentarian” hot on the heels of a good story. He felt a personal connection to the men fighting there, most much younger than he, and contrasting that to the comfortable life at home with no sign of war in sight was a very unsettling feeling for him. This is also why he ended up going to the Niger Delta last year, to try to understand the young Nigerian rebel army that blows up pipelines and kidnaps white people. He wanted to understand something much deeper about the people portrayed as villains in the media. Berends, along with his interpreter, found himself arrested and detained by the Nigerian government there, after following the story for six months. His agenda of showing a human portrayal of these rebels trying to save their land was derailed by an entity that had no interest in looking bad on the world’s stage.

ROSS KAUFFMAN, director of Born Into Brothels, which won the Oscar for Best Documentary Feature in 2005, did not have an agenda at all. He was simply captivated by the kids and the footage he saw. He says the biggest lesson he learned in making that piece was that no matter where one is or what one is doing, to change one’s life is up to the individual. In other words, there was nothing that he as a filmmaker telling these kids’ stories could have done to change the course of their lives – that conceit is something made up by some PR machine. “I realised that to understand and respect an individual’s life is the most important thing. And as another individual [coming from a different world], one has to step back and let go – you can only do so much for someone.” Unlike a lot of journalists and reporters, a long-form filmmaker’s priority is relationship-building with his or her subject; egos and larger agendas are usually quickly checked at the door.

But that is not to say that a filmic story does not have an authorial stamp, a personal ethos in how the filmmaker sees the world he or she is privileged to penetrate. These filmmakers grapple constantly with the privilege of the first-world artist going in to document a third-world subject. It has inherent moral and ethical problems that looms over every decision they make in the field and in the edit room.

Laura Poitras (© Heather Block), Zana Briski, Ross Kaufmann and kids, Eric Daniel Metzgar.
Laura Poitras (© Heather Block), Zana Briski, Ross Kaufmann and kids, Eric Daniel Metzgar.

Laura Poitras acknowledges the ambivalence of doing this kind of work: “It’s a hugely problematic tradition in photojournalism and filmmaking in war zones, that people from the first world take images from the third world and bring them back to be consumed. It lets audiences off the hook. My intention is to create a less comfortable ride for the audience by really looking at how our power and privilege are used and exercised on foreign soil. It’s important to make people feel accountable, to show Iraqi civilians beyond the statistics and front-page news. It’s about reflecting the power back to the audience. There is culpability; you’re being asked to take responsibility.” She admits that she has internal conflicts about this all the time. By being invited into an Iraqi home, as she was by her main subject in My Country, My Country, she felt protected. She was immediately set apart from “the pack mentality of journalists” who all gather in the same places when an incident occurs, vying for sound bites and the perfect pull quote to
tell a very complicated story. She understood the value of the access she was given and, in turn, people were more open with her. Her American passport enabled her to do the work she did there.

Unlike most “objective” news reporting on various “crises” going on around the world, a filmmaker’s voice (whether heard on the soundtrack or not) is “another colour to play with,” as Eric Daniel Metzgar puts it. There is always the danger of way too much context getting lost in presenting a dry, strictly vérité account of lives in peril. Yet, too much context “can make a piece saggy and heavy. “I’m distinctly not an activist journalist, but an artist,” says Metzgar. And it is the artist’s perogative to control how much context he or she thinks should be provided.

There is also the duress of just that kind of subjectivity in terms of the commitment to the subject(s), the emotional investment. Kauffman talks about this huge emotional investment but in the context of what follows – selling these stories in the marketplace. “It’s tough to sell the notion of these kinds of films that are humanistic and heartfelt and come from a deep emotional well, especially when it’s your first film. You have to do it all on your own and prove that you have a complete film that’s marketable.” All these filmmakers do their own camera and sound work, for the most part, and say that one can launch a project like this – even in a di cult geographical locale – fairly easily. It allows them to get a project started without needing too many resources and gives them a certain amount of exibility. It’s what is needed on the back end in finishing funds and exhibition and release that is the tricky part. Referencing his experience in Nigeria, Berends acknowledges that the risk-taking is in investing the time and one’s own money. But, unlike a journalist for hire, the risk of losing your access before finishing your project,– as he did when he was arrested – was his own risk too. And, in turn, there is the risk the subjects are taking, the pact that filmmaker and subject make together to create a singular piece of work. Poitras always wonders, “ They participate; they consent. But, do they really realise what it means?”

These filmmakers grapple constantly with the privilege of the first-world artist going in to document a third-world subject

At the end of the day, “docs under duress” does not represent so much the dangerous places these filmmakers traverse, but rather the task of surviving as an artist and expressing work from a particular point of view, and in turn, having that personal point of view transcend to a universal story. This label of “activist filmmaker” made everyone on the panel squirm a bit. And the “fear factor” is not what one would expect – all four of these filmmakers, in different ways, express the ambivalence, the conflict, of filming real people’s stories in such an intimate way.

Berends: “One of the scariest experiences for me was going into people’s living rooms, filming mothers and children.” Says a man that spent years dodging bullets and explosives in a war zone! Kauffman admitted that he sometimes feels that asking people to re-live and talk about painful experiences and memories is asking too much, that it is a particular kind of invasion that makes him extremely uncomfortable: “I’ve just got to believe and know that it’s going to have a positive effect somehow.”

Poitras agrees: “ There’s a great deal of dilemma in realising the goal of guring out how to document these events and how to make an audience really care. As an artist, you want to express something that has emotional heft. If I can’t do that, and you didn’t connect, then as an artist I’ve failed in terms of what I want to express…. egoalisnotto convey the experience of that place but to get people to think about the world a bit di erently.”

Metzgar, another singular visionary in how he crafts his films says, “Actually, I don’t think about the audience. When I’m cutting a film, it’s a very selfish and insular experience. I’m completely overwhelmed when I realise that people are actually going to watch it. The whole notion that what I’m creating is ‘an issue film,’ makes me feel like an imposter. That’s not my fuel at all. I want the work to transcend and move people. That can’t be explained in words. It’s its own art form.”


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