The 2009 DOXA Documentary Film Festival puts ethics under the lens, exploring power, exploitation, and bad intentions.
One of the most hotly anticipated films of the summer is Sacha Baron Cohen’s Brí¼no—the follow-up to his 2006 mockumentary Borat, which grossed US$128 million at the box office and, in the process, managed to humiliate dozens of unsuspecting costars.
Among those duped were the citizens of the godforsaken Romanian village of Glod, a Roma town whose name literally means “mud” and whose inhabitants have yet to experience running water (though they do have cable television). It was only while watching subtitled excerpts from Cohen’s completed film that they realized they’d been made to stand in for a village in Kazakhstan, all the while being mocked and ridiculed and portrayed as backward criminals.
Watch the trailer for Carmen Meets Borat.
Upon Borat’s release, lawyers quickly descended on Glod, promising untold riches if the residents sued 20th Century Fox. The result, rather than money, was jealousy, anger, and further humiliation, as can be seen in the documentary Carmen Meets Borat, by Dutch director Mercedes Stalenhoef, which screens May 29 (9 p.m. at the Vancity Theatre) as part of the 2009 DOXA Documentary Film Festival (May 22 to 31, www.doxafestival.ca/). The film focuses on Ionela Carmen Ciorobea, a 17-year-old Glod resident who dreams of moving to Spain for a better life—until the aftermath of Borat derails her and her family’s life.
“These people were not informed of what they were participating in,” Stalenhoef observes in a call from Poland, where she is attending a film festival. “He [Cohen] told them, ”˜It’s a documentary,’ and that’s what they thought. And then it was a comedy, and they were called nasty things. I think if you make a film, you should inform people so they can decide for themselves if they want to participate, and how much money they want for it.”¦They [the villagers] got not so much money [from Cohen’s crew]—like, three euros.”
Stalenhoef’s film, which also functions as a coming-of-age story, raises numerous questions about the ethics of filmmaking. And although what happened in Glod was an extreme case, it also serves as a cautionary tale writ large of what not to do when turning the camera on a subject. Inspired by Carmen Meets Borat, DOXA’s director of programming, Kris Anderson, has organized a forum at the Pacific Cinémathí¨que (May 29, 3:30 p.m.) to address issues of exploitation, power, and representation in documentary filmmaking.
“I’ve always wanted to do this forum at DOXA,” Anderson explains by phone. “The film [Carmen Meets Borat], in and of itself, is about what happens as a result of somebody not seeming to be concerned about that [ethics].” Although the events explored in Stalenhoef’s film are atypical, Anderson notes that even the best-intentioned documentary filmmakers often find themselves grappling with such issues. She cites director Kim Longinotto’s latest work, Rough Aunties (May 29, 6:30 p.m., Vancity Theatre), as one that may provoke difficult questions for some viewers. The cinéma-vérité film documents 10 weeks in the lives of a group of women working at Bobbi Bear, an organization that fights child abuse in South Africa. In addition to exploring the warm working relationship between the women, who come from a variety of racial backgrounds, it also features numerous scenes of children recounting, often for the first time, horrific instances of rape and abuse.
“Sometimes I think I get really torn and tormented by this whole thing of ethics, because it’s just not easy,” Longinotto says on the line from her home in London, England. But she remains confident that she made the right call in every scene involving a child. She explains that she obtained consent from all the children she filmed—apart from an abandoned baby who she says is now unrecognizable—and from their guardians and family members. She refers to one young girl in the movie who has been raped by her next-door neighbour: “She was really pleased to have a witness,” Longinotto insists. “She wanted her story told, and her mom wanted her story told.”
And, the filmmaker adds, “There’s a whole wider issue as well, which is that they [the victims] all say that there’s always this sense that somehow they should feel bad, that they’ve done something wrong, but they haven’t done anything wrong. And what Bobbi Bear does is it makes them feel brave and proud that they’re speaking out, and I think that’s what we should do as well.”
Even so, the inherent power imbalance of such a confessional situation raises concerns, says Haida Paul, a panellist in the DOXA ethics forum. A veteran editor, Paul also worked on The Meaning of Life (May 24, 4:30 p.m., Vancity Theatre), a documentary by Hugh Brody about a rehabilitation program run in partnership by the Chehalis First Nation and the Correctional Service of Canada (see sidebar).
“I have very ambivalent feelings about it,” Paul says of young victims of child abuse speaking on film, adding that she has yet to watch Longinotto’s film. “I feel that these films can be very, very useful, and they can help people.”¦But then what happens to the individual child when later this [the film] is there? I feel so protective toward the children.”¦I think the other thing, too, is there’s a kind of coercion going on with the presence of the camera.”
As for signed release forms, the filmmaker’s security blanket, Paul observes that “really, to inform people about what the impact might be on their lives and the lives of those close to them in full detail, it could take days to go into that. Because, of course, it’s not just at the point of signing, it’s what happens in the editing room.”
There are some occasions when, even after giving their blessing to the final product, subjects have a change of heart over their participation in a documentary, Paul adds. She mentions the famed Frederick Wiseman’s 1968 film High School, which dispassionately chronicles the interactions between teachers and students in urban Philadelphia. “He [Wiseman] showed it [the film] to the teachers and all the staff, and they were thrilled with it. And then after the film was shown, and some reviews were written and comments were made about it, criticizing them, then they didn’t like it anymore.”
Whether filmmakers are responsible for how their subjects are received by audiences is a matter of debate. But the key, according to DOXA’s Anderson, is for the creator to be aware of his or her intentions and maintain respect for those upon whom they’ve turned their camera. In The Dungeon Masters, for instance, a film by American director Keven McAlester (May 29, 9 p.m., Vancity Theatre), viewers are introduced to three social misfits who escape into the world of role-playing games. At first glance, it’s tempting to dismiss the film’s leads—one of whom enjoys dressing up as a dark elf, complete with black body paint and pointy ears—as objects of ridicule.
“That [ridicule] is a danger,” Anderson concedes. “And with Dungeon Masters, I was concerned about that too, until I watched it.”¦When I watched it right through, I didn’t feel like the filmmaker was leading them or setting them up for anything like that.”
As for Stalenhoef, whose film contains scenes of public drunkenness, open hostility, and nervous breakdowns, she insists that she feels she’s done Glod justice. “The [Ciorebea] family and the main characters saw the film,” she says. “They were really, really proud of it and touched by it. Their first reaction was, ”˜Well, this is my life.’”¦I think the effect of the Borat movie, especially the lawsuits, affected them quite a lot. I don’t think my film affected them so much.”
Asked whether or not Cohen has seen it, she says she is certain he has, although he hasn’t made contact. She laughs and says: “Maybe he learned a lesson.”