The Ethics Machine: Six Gazes of the Camera

Pre-Discussion: A Documentary World Transformed: the American Fair Use Movement
Discussion: Ethical Conundrums and the Filmmaker / Discussion: Six Gazes of the Ethics Machine / Discussion: Disaster Films and Ethics

The Ethical Toolbox

When are filmmakers obligated to ask for consent from the people who stand before their cameras? How much do those subjects need to know about the nature of what they are consenting to? What rights do they have to their own visage, their words, stories or even their own creative work? Put another way, what is the nature of a filmmaker’s responsibility to his or her subjects? How about to their audiences? Their employers? Distributors? For that matter, what is a film festival’s responsibility to its audiences and its visiting artists?


This year’s festival brings together film directors and scholars from the world over to explore the ethical challenges and conundrums facing all documentary artists. Our wide-ranging vision can be hinted at by a list of keywords for the week: responsibility, liability, staging, reenactment, deception, informed consent, power, safety, compensation, cultural sensitivity, censorship, fair use, control, rights, and shared decision making. Surely more issues will emerge in the course of the festival week, in discussions at this program and well into the night at the Komian Club.

Of course all these issues arise in the world of fiction film as well. However, we assert that the documentary medium is distinct. Fabricating a fictional story is profoundly different than stepping out into a lived reality, collecting images and sounds among fellow human beings (or other living creatures), and then re-presenting them in the time and space of the documentary film. How filmmakers behave in our shared world matters. As viewers of non-fiction films we inevitably ask how filmmakers have, as Bill Nichols so memorably put it, acquitted themselves in relation to the historical world. Nichols wrote, “The viewer’s relation to the image, then, is charged with an awareness of the politics and ethics of the gaze. An indexical bond exists between the image and the ethics that produced it.”

This is to say that whether filmmakers think about these issues or not, their ethics are inscribed in every camera angle, every interview question, every edit—indeed, every choice the filmmakers make in the complex process of photographing, editing and distributing their work. This is another way of rejecting simple claims of objectivity for documentary. That is because an ethical stance—sometimes a unethical stance—is rendered in the very time and space of every documentary film.

We will assemble in Yamagata to look closely at some exemplary films and discuss what they and their makers have to say about both filmmaking and viewing. Inspired by the writings of Bill Nichols and Vivian Sobchak, we organize the discussion at the heart of the program into a set of “gazes” built into the spatial and temporal architecture of documentaries.


We can divide these six gazes into two sets. The first involve the filmmaker reaching outward, actively engaging the world before the camera. The interventional gaze involves an ethic of commitment and solidarity, often with people in some kind of danger. While this gaze closes the distance between filmmaker and subject, the humane gaze inserts some space, often for safety’s sake. At the same time, the filmmaker closes the gap through empathy and action, a motivation for the greater good. The difference is that the interventional is sometimes marked by an ethic of irresponsibility, prompting harsh judgments from viewers. This can make it more akin to the professional gaze, which sits at the boundary of the ethical. This is an ambivalent, detached relation to the world usually underlying claims of objectivity, and is often aligned with the codes of ethics of institutions like medicine, the police, or the military.

The second set of gazes stress the relationship of the filmmaker and his or her audience, rather than the filmmaker and the world. The endangered gaze shows the filmmaker at risk, invoking an ethic of courage for the sake of making the world a safer place. The helpless gaze involves an ethic of sympathy that may not affect the events taking place, but is often critical of the violence or power underlying them. Finally, there is the accidental gaze that is driven by an ethic of inquisitiveness, one that can sometimes imply anything from morbid curiosity to sadistic voyeurism. Needless to say, these gazes appear in many combinations. Some films are dominated by a single gaze; other shift from one to another. Our discussions will pivot around clips from many films from around the world and many moments in history.

There will be three other major discussions in this program. On one evening we gather to consider “fair use” as an ethical issue critical to a lively documentary culture and a healthy democracy. On another, there will be a dialogue between two directors whose work raises a multiplicity of issues—Joshua Oppenheimer and Hara Kazuo. Finally, directors from the “Cinema With Us 2013” program will meet to talk about the particular challenges of making films about the ongoing triple disaster of 311.

We highlight a small set of films that inspire us to think about documentary ethics in all their complexity. We have avoided films that invite bashing. Our program is not about blustery criticism or self-righteous posing. Rather, these films are impressive works of documentary art that challenge us as viewers to think critically. This is because our stance as programmers is that ethics are nothing other than a toolbox for filmmakers—that the more filmmakers engage with the ethical dimensions of their craft, the more they will create powerful, intricate, and satisfying films.

Abé Mark Nornes, Fujioka Asako
Program Coordinator