New podcast: A “thousand” ways to make a good documentary

Tom Casciato, Joan Shorenstein Fellow

In my 40-year career in film and video I’ve known and worked in circles of documentarians who admire and respect journalism, but wouldn’t be caught dead being called “journalists” themselves – they are first and foremost artists. Likewise, I’ve hung with documentarians who wouldn’t be caught dead being called anything but journalists. I feel like I speak two languages, code-switching when necessary to communicate with colleagues from differing backgrounds and ideologies. For example, people calling themselves video journalists are quite likely to be comfortable with the term “B-roll,” referring to footage that can be used as a kind of visual wallpaper on which to hang voiceover from an interviewee, or recitation from a narrator. (You’ve seen it a million times on the news: a person typing something you can’t read on a computer, or walking down the street with no apparent destination.) When the term “B-roll” comes up in the presence of those who call themselves artists, it’s likely to be met with scorn. Even if they, too, film someone walking down the street, it is never thought of as “wallpaper” – it’s deliberate; every frame is art.

Like a lot of colleagues with a foot in each world, I’ve always just called myself a filmmaker, because it encompasses all the roles – director, producer, writer, editor — that I, and people like me, play. This isn’t to say that what I do isn’t art — every time I combine voice and music, scene and interview, I understand it to be an artistic endeavor, whether or not it’s Art in any grand sense. (Also, for the record, I hate the term “B-roll.”) Yet I know that I’m also a journalist, attempting a rational examination of competing viewpoints before coming to a conclusion; reporting a story rather than inventing it; trying to get that story “right” in something resembling an objective sense, even as I realize true objectivity is an impossibility.

Am I saying self-identified artists don’t do any of those things? No, in fact many do so naturally, if not from a sense of journalistic ethics learned in a newsroom. And after my year as a Shorenstein fellow examining the intersection of journalism and documentary film, my conclusion is not that there are two firm camps, with the only choices being to join one side or the other, or attempt to straddle both. It’s that when it comes to independent filmmakers’ practices and mores, ethics and sensibility, the term “Wild West” seems to come up fairly frequently.

Of course, there have always been independent filmmakers doing their own thing, with legendary figures creating methods and styles in the 20th century for others to follow. If you know the field, you know their names: the Maysles brothers, Julia Reichert, Frederick Wiseman et al. But filmmaking was an extremely expensive proposition back in their day, with the cost of cameras, film stock, lab work, an editing room with a flatbed, and more, all of it adding up. And while nowadays it’s not uncommon to see a feature doc with a budget of over a million dollars, it’s also true that video technology is such that anyone with a fast computer, a good smart phone, some wireless mics, and a license for editing software like Avid or Adobe Premiere can, in theory, make a doc virtually by themselves.

(One of those Avid licenses costs a couple of hundred dollars a year. By comparison, 30 years ago, when digital editing and I were both young, I took out a business loan to buy an Avid editing system. The cost: $60,000. Sixty thousand bucks.)

The democratizing effect of inexpensive technology, combined with the proliferation of outlets — from the big streamers like Netflix and Amazon to YouTube and beyond — has brought an enormous number of folks into the game with a wide variety of backgrounds agendas. What that means is that there is no standard praxis, nothing approaching a set of rules, or universal guidelines, that all documentarians follow. And even if there were rules, there’s no one to enforce them. Unless one is working for a traditional journalistic organization with its own standards and practices — the New York Times, say, or the PBS Frontline series – there’s little stopping documentarians from creating their own standards with each film they make.

That might sound like a recipe for a thousand ways a filmmaker could go wrong. And it’s easy enough to find examples of unethical filmmaking: changing the chronology of events to fit a preferred narrative, filming intimate scenes without informed consent, etc. But it’s a lot more complicated – and more interesting – than that.

Take ethics. It’s not that there are no documentary ethics. Some documentarians have an abundance of them, as I’ll get to. And I’m sure all doc filmmakers join journalists in saying it’s unethical to knowingly state something blatantly untrue (not to mention the fact that it will void your errors & omissions insurance policy). But the discussion goes far beyond questions of truth vs. lies. And when it comes to ethics, there are genuine differences of thoughtful opinion in a field in which policing standards is close to impossible.

Take this small example: how should a filmmaker refer to someone who has agreed to be in a doc? Someone my age is likely to call the main person about whom they’re making a film the “subject,” if for no other reason than that’s what the filmmakers who mentored us called them. Likewise, we grew up in the business referring to the entirety of those appearing in our documentaries as “characters.”  Younger colleagues have taught me that those terms diminish and objectify the people who’ve given us permission to film them. It’s far better to call them “participants,” which in its neutrality better captures the spirit of what is actually going on. It makes perfect sense, and I like it better. But meanwhile, can you imagine a news reporter covering, say, a Senate hearing and referring to those interviewed as “participants”?

Altering one’s language comes, of course, with little effort and zero risk. There are much thornier issues being debated in documentary circles. For example, should participants be paid or otherwise compensated in some way? Traditional journalism would say no, for a reason enshrined in journalistic ethics: once you pay people, they’re working for you, and paying someone to be in your piece can elicit the charge of practicing “checkbook journalism” – incentivizing people to give you the story you want instead of the story that’s true. But more and more documentarians are saying yes to giving their participants some sort of compensation, if only an agreement to share some of the profits should the doc ever make money (which very few do). Their rationale: the people in the film are giving you their time, and their story. Why should they get nothing in return? Of course, saying yes can mean increasing the budget, in a genre where there’s not a lot of money to begin with. But some folks are doing it anyway.

Then there’s the issue of sharing a cut of the film with participants while editing is in progress, going so far as to solicit their input, or, even further, allowing them to pull out of a project entirely after they have consented to be interviewed, particularly when they are sharing personal, traumatic stories. While the journalistic ethics I grew up with wouldn’t allow this — letting people you’ve interviewed that kind of power suggests that they could manipulate the story, or potentially, depending on how much power you give them, censor it in advance — trauma experts are recommending the practice, not only in doc circles, but generally in nonfiction storytelling. But the stakes for the doc filmmaker are potentially much higher than for, say, a print journalist. That’s because, depending their budget, the filmmaker may have spent thousands hiring a crew to shoot the interview and additional scenes with the participant, and thousands more in paying an editor to edit the material. And if the person pulls out, the filmmaker may now have to spend additional thousands to re-edit the film, and even more thousands to shoot and edit a new interview plus scenes to replace those they have agreed to delete. Yet some are agreeing that this is the ethical way to go.

And there’s much more under discussion, a lot of which was outlined in a 2020 article by Sonya Childress and Natalie Bullock Brown (like me, a Shorenstein Center fellow) in their article for Documentary magazine, “The Documentary Future: A Call For Accountability.” Their guidelines were subsequently codified by the organization Natalie leads, the Documentary Accountability Working Group (DAWG). They include suggested practices I’ve never heard of in journalistic circles, including for example providing a psychotherapist at screenings who can help participants navigate issues that might arise when seeing themselves portrayed onscreen. Not every filmmaker follows each of DAWG’s guidelines; it’s safe to say that plenty of filmmakers follow none of them. But they’re a growing part of the conversation, and they’re having an impact.

All this has led me to want to talk to other filmmakers and doc folks to get their thoughts and hear about their practices. So, alongside Shorenstein’s documentary film research initiative, I’ve done a podcast series, interviewing documentarians, educators and observers of the scene about what they do, how they do it, and what they think about it. If you check it out, you’ll hear Natalie Bullock Brown describing DAWG’s ethical framework in detail. You’ll hear filmmaker Byron Hurt talk about what it’s like putting that framework into practice: he makes it sound necessary, but he does not make it sound easy. You’ll hear from Jennifer Tiexiera and Camillia Hall, whose unique film Subject features previously untold stories from those who’ve been participants in some of the most popular docs of the last three decades (including Hoop Dreams, The Square, Capturing the Friedmans and The Staircase). They talk about how those appearances have changed their lives, not always for the better. (Tiexiera and Hall go so far as to share producer credit on “Subject” with one of their participants.) You’ll hear Yoruba Richen and Brad Lichtenstein, the directing team behind Frontline’s film about an unsolved 1960s civil rights murder, “American Reckoning,” describe what it’s like working within the strictures of a decidedly journalistic outfit after being used to working independently. (Spoiler: it involves receiving 37 pages of fact-checking notes.) You’ll hear former broadcast journalists turned Oscar-nominated filmmakers Julie Cohen and Betsy West talk about the liberating lack of strictures they’ve found in the doc world, while still wearing their journalistic hats. You’ll hear American University’s Caty Borum on the merits of artistic filmmaking in a unique category of cinema she refers to as “creative independent investigative documentary.” You’ll hear a veteran filmmaker, June Cross — who also teaches documentary at the Columbia Journalism School — talk about how what she tells her students about doc ethics, and how her own practices have evolved over the years. And you’ll hear another journalism professor, the University of Missouri’s Robert Greene, whose Oscar-nominated doc “Procession” combines traditional doc scenes with scripted ones written and performed by trauma-survivors, speak in depth about his belief that “documentary needs to get rid of its subservience to journalism.” (To be clear, Robert isn’t your average J-school professor; his self-given title at Missouri’s Murray Center for Documentary Journalism, in fact, is “filmmaker-in-chief.”) There’s a lot more, too.

If you’re a documentary filmmaker and you’ve read this far, you might not have learned anything new here. But if all this is eye-opening, and you object to the notion that doc filmmakers can simply choose to be unfettered by journalism’s traditional mores and boundaries, know that your objection is – if Harvard will forgive the term – academic. This is what’s happening in the real world. It isn’t that documentarians are hostile to the project of traditional journalism; it just isn’t their project. It’s like how someone who plays bluegrass might approach European classical music. They might appreciate it — they might even adore it. But they don’t hear a place in the orchestra for their banjo.

And as should be clear by now, it’s impossible even to say that doc filmmakers, collectively, have a single project. That’s why I’ve named the podcast “Thousand Roads” after a not particularly well-known song by the late David Crosby, in which he sings of “a thousand roads up the mountain,” and tells listeners he’s not going to tell them which one to take. I’m not here to tell anyone which one to take either, but rather to listen, to let folks tell you about the ones they’ve taken, and are still taking. What I’ve learned along the way is that with so many filmmakers working so freely with so many different sets of standards, it turns out there’s a lot of ways to go right.

Tom Casciato is a Joan Shorenstein Fellow. He and his partner Kathleen Hughes are currently directing a film for the PBS Frontline series, a followup to their 2013 project “Two American Families.”