Transformations in Film as Reality, Round 2

The Good, the Bad, and the Documentary:
On Deontology of Representation and Ethics of Interpretation

Kees Bakker

The first Transformations in Film as Reality series brought together articles by Komatsu Hiroshi (DB #5), Bill Nichols (DB #6), Michael Renov (DB #7), and Kogawa Tetsuo (DB #8) to explore the history and relationship between film and reality in commemoration of cinema’s centennial in 1995. Over the past decade the YIDFF International Competition has expanded its submission guidelines from film-only to video, and works shot using compact video cameras screen along with films in the festival lineup. Works frequently probe the personal and private and on occasion trigger vigorous debate. Many researchers have written on the relationship between documentary makers and their subjects, but recent current events suggest a relationship increasingly fraught with complexity. And viewers must not be forgotten. In re-inaugurating this series, we have invited writers from diverse backgrounds to address the transformation of documentary and reality in reference to documentarists, their subjects, audiences and outlets (television, distribution companies, film festivals) from different cultural and ethical vantage points. The first installment is by Documentary Box Editorial Committee member Kees Bakker, who addresses ethics in documentaries focusing primarily on Western Europe.

—The Editors

In The Five Obstructions (Denmark, 2003) Lars von Trier is asking Jørgen Leth to remake his own 1967 short film The Perfect Human. Not once, but five times, and each time following von Trier’s bizarre obstructions. It should be considered a crime to ask a director to make a remake of his own film, but Leth accepts to play the game. The Perfect Human is a stylish but ironic, poetic film about human behavior, inspired by the world of advertising. When Leth returns from his first assignment—with the obstruction not to use more than twelve frames per shot—von Trier’s disappointment is visible: despite the outrageous obstruction, and having lengthy shots as one of the characteristics of his film style, Leth has succeeded in delivering a beautiful film. As a revenge von Trier is going to put Leth’s ethics to the test by imposing him the following obstructions: to film in “the most miserable place of the world” (to which Leth is quite used. . .), but not to show it; Leth plays the role of “the man,” and the copious meal should be in it. Filming a man eating a copious meal in face of the poorest people of the world without showing their misery is not very elegant—to say the least—but Leth takes up the challenge and sets off for the most miserable street of Mumbai.

This brings us to the discussion of what von Trier and Leth call during their talks “the ethics of the observer”—the filmmaker being the “observer.” The ethics of documentary filmmaking has been discussed more often and generally it has focused on the relation between the documentarist and his subject(s). But there is much more to it. In this essay I want to discuss the different ethical aspects involved in documentary representation, by looking at it as an act, or actions, of communication in which ethics play a role on different levels. The first act—and in literature on documentary the most discussed—is the filming itself and the relation between the filmmaker and his subject. What is the documentarist “allowed” to do with his subjects? How may he represent them, without harming their integrity? The second “act” is another widely discussed one, but mostly from a semiotic point of view: the relation between the documentary—as the message—and reality; the act of representation. Notions of “objectivity” and “truth” are still considered to be elements of a litmus test for labeling a film as a documentary. A third act is hardly discussed when it comes to ethics, but is more and more pressing to be discussed: the presentation of the documentary by and its distributor/broadcaster. Nowadays, documentary depends mainly on Television to get financed and “distributed.” But broadcasters seem to be willing to impose their rules on documentary, formatting the genre in such a way that those who still make “real” documentaries are regarded as weird types from a different age or even manipulators. Last but not least, and when it comes to documentary ethics hardly discussed, is the communicative act of the spectator. In philosophy ethics is discussed in relation to action/behavior—trying to distinguish good from bad. Ethics, as philosophy, can be considered as a “practical philosophy” or a “philosophy of action.” Nobody will deny that filmmaking is an action that implies moral issues regarding the treatment of subjects (the first act) or, when it comes to documentary, truth-telling (the second act). Neither will many people object that broadcasting (or showing in general—the third act) is an action that, thus, implies ethical behavior. But since the spectator is generally considered as a passive human being, sitting in his chair watching the film, not much thought has been given to the most crucial action of all he undertakes: interpretation.

What follows should not be considered as an exhaustive description of ethical aspects in documentary, but merely as some points of reflection and strands of thought on those issues that deserve to get much more attention—both in the academic world as in the world of documentary practitioners, from filmmakers and broadcasters to the spectator. And since ethical values differ from country to country, from person to person, I will limit myself to a (Western) European context, the context in which I move myself and which undoubtedly has limited and defined my worldview and my ethical stance.


Before sending Jørgen Leth to Mumbai Lars von Trier asks him: “would you film a dying child in a refugee camp and add the words from The Perfect Human?” “No” is Leth’s answer, “I’m not perverse.” Apparently, Leth’s moral values tell him that exploiting a child (or a film’s subject in general) in distress for mere artistic and aesthetic pleasure, or even for financial gain, is “bad.” Therefore, he wouldn’t do it. Still, he accepts the obstruction of filming the eating of a copious meal in the most miserable place in the world, without showing that misery. But again, it appears that Leth’s moral values dictate his filmmaking: he returns to von Trier with the remake in which he shows the scene against a semi-transparent background behind which the men, women and children clot together to witness the meal. Though not explicitly visible, their misery becomes palpable, making the film “good” from an ethical point of view, which was exactly opposed to what von Trier wanted (thus, “mission failed”).

These are the ethical considerations that have mostly been dealt with in writings on ethics of documentary. In Alan Rosenthal’s New Challenges for Documentary one part is devoted to Documentary Ethics, and most of the articles deal with the filmmakers’ responsibility towards “their” subjects. Rosenthal in the introduction of this part: “The problem can be fairly simply framed: Filmmakers use and expose people’s lives. This exploitation is often done for the best of motives, but it occasionally brings unforeseen and dire consequences into the lives of filmed subjects. So the basic question is, what is the duty of care, or responsibility, owed by filmmakers to those they film?” (Rosenthal, 246)

Both the European Convention on Human Rights (article 8) as well as the Council of Europe’s Resolution on the ethics of journalism (article 23) refer to “the right to respect for private and family life.” However, this fundamental right is regularly in competition with other fundamental rights: the right to freedom of expression, and the right to information (respectively article 10 and article 8). But why am I referring to ethics of journalism when I am talking about documentary? Well, I will go deeper into that in the next “Acts” below, but let us content ourselves that: for one, it is upon these same rights that documentarists regularly put their claims; and for two, in case law on documentary in which ethics plays a role there is often a reference to these journalistic codes of ethics, for the “simple” reason that documentary deals with reality. Don’t protest—we will get back to that.

So, how can the filmmaker be responsible regarding his or her subject? The answer is often: by informed consent. The filmmaker has to inform his subject of how he will be depicted in the film, and how this may affect his life. He is not allowed to obtain this consent by intimidation, or coercion, or from someone who is physically or mentally not competent to consent. It sounds easy, but it is far from that. First, the filmmaker is not always in a communicative situation with his subjects. Second, if we follow Calvin Pryluck’s point that “Consent is flawed when obtained by the omission of any fact that might influence the giving or withholding of permission,” (Rosenthal, 262) we can ask ourselves how many years we need to explain our subjects what the possible implications are of appearing in a Documentary. This is not merely irony: it is, in my opinion, simply impossible to provide all possible information about what a documentary is and what this specific one can cause, and to foresee all possible interpretations of the film or sequences of the film. Furthermore, a filmmaker is not always in the situation to show the final result to his subjects; sometimes there is some money involved to reach certain ends (is that coercion?), and then, when shown in other places, other cultures, the impact and interpretation can be quite different. But, as far as possible, informed consent is a good start—and let us hope they don’t regret it afterwards.

On the other hand, media are nowadays (here in Europe at least) so omnipresent that some pre-understanding of what it can imply to appear in a documentary may be expected. Worse: your subjects may turn against you because they already knew their opportunities. Again, no irony here, which may illustrate the following story, in which Nicolas Philibert, documentarist, sees his main character, teacher at a primary school, turning against him. Months of preparation and shooting, with cooperation of all subjects or their parents (in case of the minors), resulted in Philibert’s portrait of a primary school with just one teacher for all pupils somewhere on the countryside in France: the film Être et avoir (“To Be and To Have,” France, 2002). Everybody was happy with the final result, proud to see their children appear in a sympathetic film, and proud of their teacher . . . until it appeared that this documentary hit the box office records with 1.8 million spectators in the cinemas, was selling to many broadcasters and was a also a hit in DVD-sales. Mr. George Lopez, the teacher made a charge against Philibert of counterfeit (claiming to be co-author of the film because fragments of his courses are depicted in the film) and of infringement of his “image rights” (which derives from the right to respect for private life). The parents of the kids made a claim of 20,000 euros each, because they should be paid as actors, since the kids sometimes had to repeat certain scenes.

Greed is the root to all attacks on documentary. Fortunately, for the existence of documentary, all claims were nonsuit: there was informed consent; Lopez cannot be considered co-author since he did not participate in the creative process of the filmmaking itself; the film is not reproducing elements of his courses for which he could claim copyrights; and regarding the “actors” the judge considered that Lopez and the kids have only been filmed exercising their professional/educational activity (in their “natural habitat”), which comes as “a documentary fact, that—in its relation to reality—excludes the notion of ‘acting.’” Great relief to all French documentarists who already shouted: “We are no image thieves!”

All this only to say that in the relation between the filmmaker and his subjects ethics is not a one-way ticket. The filmmaker definitely has some responsibilities, but we should not forget that subjects should not merely be considered as passive victims, undergoing the documentary “treatment”—especially not in a time when almost everybody (in Western Europe, it should be added) is a massive media-consumer. And, being citizens like any other, subjects too have rights they are allowed to exercise. For example, the Television Without Frontiers directive of the European Union provides for the “right of reply” (Article 22): “ . . . any natural or legal person, regardless of nationality, whose legitimate interests, in particular reputation and good name, have been damaged by an assertion of incorrect facts in a television program [which includes documentaries] must have a right of reply or equivalent remedies.”

There is much more to be said about this, but, as I already stated, this part of documentary ethics has been widely dealt with before, for example in Rosenthal’s book, but also in the last two chapters of Brian Winston’s Lies, Damn Lies and Documentaries.


The idea that documentarists are authors, artists, who are creatively treating themes and subjects taken from historical or actual reality, seems to be outmoded. Thanks to the Maysles brothers, Jean Rouch and Television, documentary has become another word for “audiovisual journalism.” I am exaggerating a bit, but in the world of practitioners (filmmakers, broadcasters and spectators) the definition of documentary has definitely—but mainly implicitly—been narrowed down during the last decades. This has its impact on the idea of how documentary should represent reality, and when borders are crossed.

Well, let us play the game for a while and forget eighty years of documentary film history and that “creativity” stuff. Let us again pretend that documentary ethics coincides with ethics of journalism and let us consult the resolution of the Council of Europe on ethics of journalism again, because there are some interesting things in there. First of all the distinction that is made between “news” and “opinions”: “News is information about facts and data, while opinions convey thoughts, ideas, beliefs or value judgments . . .” (article 3). Keyword for “news” is “truthfulness” (article 4), while for “opinions”—acknowledging that “truthfulness” and “objectivity” are not appropriat—we have “to ensure that opinions are expressed honestly and ethically” (article 5) and “should not attempt to deny or conceal the reality of the facts or data” (article 6). What surprises me in this, and in most national codes of ethics for journalists, is that it seems to be based on a positivism that was in vogue some 150 years ago. The recent developments (i.e. of the last hundred years) in philosophy (of science), post-modernist thinking and historiographical theory appears to be terra incognita for those who established the codes. OK, the resolution dates from 1993, and it is only very recently that one George W. Bush (not a philosopher) has clearly demonstrated that “the reality of facts and data” depends first and foremost on the ideological, political and economic interests/blinders of the person who is using or creating them. Facts, like data, are representations; and I am one of those (postmodernists?) who thinks that representations are interpretations. The (information about) reality of facts is thus the reality of interpretations. Journalists should not consider news as “this is how it is” but as “this is how we see it.” Truth and objectivity should not be interpreted as that what corresponds with reality. Especially regarding journalism we can echo the words of Gianni Vattimo (philosopher and member of the European Parliament) that “it is in the world of public opinion, of the mass media . . . that a theory of truth not as correspondence but as interpretation may be found” (Vattimo, 115). Truth relates to a specific worldview and, like objectivity, it can then be regarded as “correspondence with a specific worldview,” bearing in mind that “radio, television and newspapers became elements in a general explosion and proliferation of worldviews” (Vattimo, 5). Documentary is part of that.

Does this all mean that we have to become nihilistic relativists? No, I don’t think so. We should not despair or fall into an apathy regarding the objectivity of the world, as some postmodern thinkers tend to do. To me, postmodernists’ aim is certainly not to deny facts, data and truth claims. Its aim seems to me more to put these in a (different) context, and especially to become conscious of the context(s) in which they generate their meanings, and thus how they could generate other meanings when these facts, data, and truth claims are analyzed from different perspectives, different world views. Especially in documentary, and in news programs on television, we see that truth claims are the core of the matter. A simple denial of this would block our way to understand and explain these programs and documentaries, and the events they talk about. Nietzsche’s famous thesis that the “real world” has become a fable should not lead to the conclusion that we cannot rely on this fable. On the contrary, it is the only reference we have to build up our understanding of the world: “The images of the world we receive from the media and the human sciences, albeit on different levels, are not simply different interpretations of a ‘reality’ that is ‘given’ regardless, but rather constitute the very objectivity of the world. . . . It makes more sense to recognize that what we call the ‘reality of the world’ is the ‘context’ for the multiplicity of ‘fablings’—and the task and significance of the human sciences lie precisely in thematizing the world in these terms” (Vattimo, 24-25).

The ethical stance in this is the self-consciousness of news and documentaries regarding their context of reality. News can be truthful and objective, but should be conscious of the fact that this truthfulness and objectivity is limited to the world view in which it moves. Opinions should be honest and ethical in a similar vein: conscious of the world view(s) they imply. Like for journalism, reality is the core of the business of documentary. Documentarists have the same moral obligations to be truthful and honest—in the sense of as it is presented above.

In concreto, what are the limits of truthfulness and honesty in documentary representation? Fortunately, there is no documentary bible of do’s and don’ts, but the following story will at least give some food for thought, and will probably show that ethical values differ from person to person, even when they share a lot of worldviews. The case at hand is the documentary Ford Transit (the Netherlands, 2002) by Hany Abu-Assad, commissioned by the VPRO Broadcasting Organization. The film tells the story of a Palestinian taxi driver who has to cope with the many Israeli road blocks in the occupied territories. The VPRO decided to withdraw the film from the Netherlands Film Festival after it was informed (by the BBC!) that scenes were staged, and that the taxi driver was not a taxi driver in real life—so it was acted. The VPRO had worked before with Abu-Assad, so they knew about his working methods (mixing fiction with documentary work). The filmmaker can be reproached that he had not mentioned to the VPRO that he had not changed these methods. That he used an “actor” for the film does not change the daily experience of many taxi drivers and other Palestinians in the occupied Palestinian territories. Still, the VPRO considered the film not “truthful,” because scenes were staged. It is interesting to refer here to Winston’s “Reconstruction Continuum,” which should help us to draw a line between fiction (total intervention by the filmmaker) and fact (non-intervention). He says: “‘Acting’ alone is unambiguously fiction and ‘acting witnessed history’ is drama-documentary; but all the other points on the continuum can and have been considered legitimate for documentary practice.” (Winston, 106). In Winston’s—British—view Ford Transit would be called a drama-documentary, but not everything in the film is “acted witnessed history.” I even want to claim that Abu-Assad has been more honest in using an “actor” and more truthful to the situation of Palestinian taxi drivers, than the VPRO in censoring its distribution and showing at a festival, because—apparently—they consider staging in documentary a greater crime than telling about the impact of Israeli road blocks in occupied Palestinian territories. But it is up to anybody to give his or her moral judgment on this.

(It should, however, be noted that using an “actor” is contrary to the verdict of the judge in the case of George Lopez vs. the team of Être et avoir: “A documentary fact—in its relation to reality—excludes the notion of ‘acting.’” Hahaha, if the judge only knew . . .)


Documentary depends for its financing nowadays, and especially in Europe, on broadcasters. Most film funds even demand that the filmmaker has a deal with a broadcaster before they will eventually support the filmmaker in making his documentary. The commissioning editors of these broadcasters—well, many of them and others responsible for financing and programming documentaries (or “factual programs”)—seem to have no idea of what documentary is (because they just moved from the children’s department to the documentary department, or they worked before for a publishing company. But hey, everybody knows what documentary is, right?). Some think that documentaries tell the truth, or something like that. Others claim that there is no creativity involved in documentary filmmaking: “A documentarist is no artist.” Unfortunately, this is not a joke—more than once I have heard commissioning editors say things like this; the documentarist is a recording machine—John Grierson would turn in his grave. People with some knowledge of documentary film history are a rare breed at broadcasting companies.

Direct Cinema and Cinéma Vérité have set the models: documentarists are observing, recording and interviewing people. Investigative journalism or Brian Lapping-like films seem to set today’s norms for today’s documentary: a series of talking heads, preferably talking VIPs, explaining events or revealing juicy secrets, illustrated with some stock or journalistic footage. A “weirdo” like e.g. Thierry Knauff, with his Wild Blue—notes à quelques voix (Belgium, 2000), is praised for his artisticity, but his film is hardly shown outside of the festivals, because “it doesn’t fit the slots.” First, because the film is 66 minutes, instead of 52 or 53 (although broadcasters have no scruples to cut films down; the 2003 Amsterdam Joris Ivens Award winner Checkpoint was cut down from 78 minutes to 53 for broadcasting). Second, it is in black and white (nobody wants to watch b/w films anymore). And third, it has no clear narrative—the spectator is forced to think when watching this film. Furthermore, as I have already stated before, broadcasters are more and more imposing journalistic norms on documentaries; documentaries represent reality, and are therefore not allowed to stage scenes, be subjective, use fictional elements and the like. Of course, I am generalizing and exaggerating, but the tendency is clearly there.

Fortunately, for Europeans, there is the Television Without Frontiers directive of the European Union, which regulates the quotas broadcasters have to invest in independent production (10 percent of their transmission time or programming budget), and most countries have quotas for programming the different television genres. Some do specify “documentaries” but then together with “magazines” or “information/actuality programs.” Others only mention “factual programming.” Many broadcasters use these quotas not only as a minimum, but also as a maximum. Understandable, because they too have to make money. A lively debate in the summer of 2003 in France might illustrate this: The big boss of TF1, France’s leading private broadcasting channel, Patrick Le Lay declared: “What we are selling to Coca-Cola is the available time of human brains,” meaning that the programs in between the commercials are destined to prepare the television spectator for those commercials. Within that context we also have to note that companies like Endemol (“Big Brother,” “Star Academy,” etc.) are also independent producers, and that some broadcasters tend to put the ultimate form of Direct Cinema that is called Reality TV under the same heading as documentaries, using up the quota and the slots for factual programming—simply because there is much more money to make with Reality TV than with a documentary on the sex life of snails.

The Public Broadcasting channels are still the saviors of documentary, but their competition with the private channels is becoming more and more threatening for real independent production and the leveling out of the programs they offer. Patricia Zimmermann has analyzed this “war on documentary” in an American context, which is a bit different than the European context, but the trend is going in the same direction. News and factual programming (which includes documentaries) have become the new battle grounds between public and private broadcasters, with the risks Zimmermann observes: “The clear lines of distinction between public space and corporate space, between public affairs and private enterprise, between oppositional work and corporatist multiculturalism, between identity politics and niche marketing, between the nation and the globe, have become murky” (Zimmermann, 50). Here in Europe a lot of people frown when they see the recent events in the USA, the way some news channels function, and an account on that like the film Outfoxed (USA, 2004), and they think this will not happen on the “old continent.” But in Europe too, it becomes more and more clear that economic interests dictate political, ideological, and moral values and with that the media landscape, something that is called “truth” and the productions that deal with that.

This battle for audience ratings and the formatting of documentary does not only lead to a narrowing down of the concept and definition of documentary itself, to which I already referred above, but also to a leveling down of modes of expression in general, and especially the subjective and interpretive—opinionating and thought provoking—discourses that are needed to give the public more background information and points of reflection on things that happen or have happened in the real world. Producing and showing these kind of discourses is, in my humble opinion, one of the noble tasks of documentary. But also of those with the power to show: the broadcasters and distributors. This is what could really be called—and should be part of—the deontology of (public) broadcasters: showing what is behind the surface of reality, and setting the “right” priorities when it comes to programming. It may be utopian, but it is at least worth a thought.


A documentary filmmaker, and the broadcaster too, generally considers the target group for whom he wants to film or to show his work to. This implies considerations about possible interpretations of the imagery, commentary, editing sequences, etc. He himself—while filming, editing, writing, selecting—is interpreting the world around him. In fact, the spectator who sees the film is interpreting an interpreted world. This not only underlines the importance of a certain ethical (deontological) stance of the filmmaker, but also that the spectator cannot simply be considered as a passive consumer: interpretation is an act—a fundamental act in the process of communication.

In another way, I think that in this time of omnipresent media the spectator is not that illiterate anymore as he may have been when the Lumière brothers’ train came off the screen in 1895. Still, it is not enough; courses in Media-literacy should be an obligatory element in the high school curriculum, and despite the many, many lies people get through their TV sets, they still believe—almost unconditionally—in the authenticity of the moving image. But the spectator is not only a stupid victim, he is also an active and intelligent image consumer and knows more and more how to distinguish real from fake, documentary from fiction. Even when a documentary uses fictional elements, most spectators nowadays (except those of the VPRO, maybe) know how to value that. In that sense, it is not only from the documentary filmmaker that we may expect that he is conscious of the relative objectivity of his world view, we may expect the same from the spectator. In a time when moral standards are hammered in by certain world leaders, it has become clear that these standards are more and more disputed (and disputable), and less and less “standard.” One of the merits of globalization—in which the media play an important role—is the encounter of different cultures and the growing awareness that “different culture” can also mean “different moral standards”—different world views, different ethics.

The optimistic view is that we, as spectators, learn by this confrontation of different world views to value and respect these other world views and to interpret them in a more balanced way. However, it appears to be very difficult to step back from ones own moral standards when judging the other. A recent incident in the Netherlands, that became world news, shows this in a painful way. On November 2, 2004, the filmmaker/writer Theo van Gogh was shot and stabbed to death by a Muslim extremist. The motivation for this appalling act (extremism normally does not go well together with “good” moral values) were his provocative articles in the press and the film Submission (the Netherlands, 2004), which van Gogh made with Ayaan Hirsi Ali, a member of the Dutch parliament from Somalian (and Muslim) descent. This individual act caused several violent reactions (arson of mosques and Islamic schools, in return arson of churches), and emotional debates. The provocative and regularly insulting words of van Gogh regarding the Muslim community, and especially the extremists, did not show many respect; the killing even less. But here I want to concentrate on the film. Submission is a short film showing a veiled woman, praying to Allah. The front of the veil is transparent and we can see the naked body of the woman on which verses of the Koran are written. During her prayer she professes here submission to Allah and her husband and other male members of the family, at the same time recounting acts of abuse and violence by these family members. The images of the praying woman are interrupted by images of parts of a mutilated female body. The contrast between the professed submission and the suffering undergone by that submission is stark and painful. Someone with a basic knowledge of Islam can imagine that this film is provocative, to say the least. But in the Dutch society—a pious society, but also with a long tradition of criticism, parody, and mocking regardless what religious traditions and rituals—this way of expressing oneself is completely protected by the right to freedom of expression (which, it should be said, is nevertheless limited), already referred to earlier on.

The will to understand, and the capacity to acknowledge and respect other world views are probably the basic elements of a Western European ethics of interpretation. In the case of Submission, but also in general, the spectator may not agree with the message of the film. The most important is that he understands—or at least acknowledges the existence of—the world view that is behind it. As member of a society, the least you can do is respect the morals of that society. As spectator of (documentary) films you must be ready to confront yourself with different world views. Quoting one last time Gianni Vattimo when he underlines the ethical foundation of hermeneutics—the “philosophy of interpretation”: In “Habermasian” terms “hermeneutics is the philosophy of the society of public opinion, of mass media. In Heideggerian vernacular: it is the philosophy of the epoch of world views and their inevitable conflict” (Vattimo, 113). The media-literacy, that has to be taught—but that in my opinion can for a large part already expected with the average spectator—should include this consciousness of the communicative act: public opinion, mass media and documentary beg for interpretations. The experience of truth must be filtered by the awareness that “truth” is tied to specific world views, and that these world views can contradict other. Documentary, dealing with reality and representing many world views is a perfect means to feed that awareness. And I want to underline that “documentary” here has to be understood as the communicative act that involves filmmaker, broadcaster, spectator and many others. They are all actively involved in the production, understood as (re)presentation and interpretation, of world views.

In this rapid and incomplete overview of ethical aspects in documentary communication it should be underlined that these communicative acts are merely distinguished from each other for analytical purposes, and are much more intertwined in documentary practice. I have been exaggerating here and there, and I am guilty of some generalizations. Some might think that I have a grudge against the VPRO Broadcasting Organization, which is not true: they have the most interesting documentary programming of the Netherlands. By no means I have the pretension to know how it all should be, but I do have my opinions. My intention was to give some strands of thought on this still under-exposed topic. It is however encouraging that a recent Introduction to Documentary (Nichols) starts with a chapter on Documentary Ethics.

Representation and interpretation are two sides of the same picture. The deontology/ethics involved in these processes is determined by moral standards of societies, legislation, communities and individuals. “Good” and “bad” are as objective value judgments as “truth” corresponds to the “reality of facts.” The valuation of the “good” and the “bad” is in the hands of every single person (and this has been formalized/generalized by different laws or codes in different societies). But the documentary is in the hands of everybody participating in the communicative acts described above. Ethical issues are the concern of everybody involved in those acts, not only of the documentarist, but also of the broadcaster and the spectator—just to name a couple . . .

Coming back, in conclusion, to The Five Obstructions, it is worth to say that Lars von Trier not only plays a game with co-director Jørgen Leth, but also with the spectator: in the Mumbai-remake (obstruction 2) Leth shows the misery of the people by using a semi-transparent background. If this background would not have been transparent, one could question the moral standards of both directors. But von Trier has undercut that since The Five Obstructions is not only five remakes of The Perfect Human in a row, it is at the same time a making-of of these remakes in which—as in every “good” documentary—the misery has explicitly been shown. At the same time, von Trier and Leth have actively involved the spectator in thinking about these ethical issues.


Kees Bakker

Film researcher. Has published several articles on related topics. Editor of Joris Ivens and the Documentary Context and is currently working on his Ph.D. dissertation: “Representation and Interpretation of Reality—Towards a Hermeneutics of Documentary Film and Television.”


  • Bill Nichols, Introduction to Documentary, Indiana University Press, Bloomington, 2001.
  • Alan Rosenthal (ed.), New Challenges for Documentary, University of California, Berkeley, 1988.
  • Gianni Vattimo, The Transparent Society, Johns Hopkins University Press, Baltimore, 1992.
  • Brian Winston, Lies, Damn Lies and Documentaries, British Film Institute, London, 2000.
  • Patricia Zimmermann, States of Emergency—Documentaries, Wars, Democracies, University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis, 2000.
Internet sources:
From the Editors:
Brian Winston’s Lies, Damn Lies and Documentaries is reviewed in Documentary Box #20 and Patricia Zimmermann’s States of Emergency—Documentaries, Wars, Democracies is reviewed in Documentary Box #19.