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Bill Megalos: ‘Ethical Guidelines for Documentary Filmmakers’

July 19, 2018

Editor's note

The following text examines many of the complex ethical ramifications that accompany the production of documentaries. Drawing from his personal and lengthy experience as a filmmaker, Bill Megalos approaches, with a personal tone, the issues that arise during the production of documentaries which capture the journey and struggles of refugees and migrants. In 2015, Megalos spent time to Lesvos, which he visited twice with the International Rescue committee filming the refugee crisis there. Additionally, he was filmaker in the Stuck in the Doorway, a documentary that aims to share the stories of those who have found themselves being in the position of the 'voiceless'. 

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We are living in a world that faces increasing displacement of populations due to conflict, economic crises and climate change.

 

The traditional media focuses on the most dramatic and sensational moments of this global migration but is disinclined or unable to go beyond the surface to show the human dimension of this crisis. I am excited to be able to tell the stories of individuals and families as they make the transition to new lives in their new homes. Our focus is on refugees themselves as well as the people they interact with.

 

I am grateful for the opportunity to explore these lives and to be able to share what I learn from them. In forty years as a documentary filmmaker and cameraperson, I have worked on projects in 60 countries and have worked with some of the greatest documentarians and greatest humanitarians of our times. I bring all I have learned from these remarkable people to this project which means so much to me. 

 

Greece has a history of taking in refugees. Indeed, modern Greece was created when more than one million refugees (of Greek heritage) arrived from Asia Minor in the early 1920s. Their struggles and entrepreneurial drive to create a new homeland brought Greece into the modern era. Even while suffering through a crippling economic crisis, today’s Greeks, having grown up hearing of the trials of their grandparents, welcomed the Syrian, Iraqi, Afghan and Iranian refugees. As the Syrian war and unrest in the Middle East has continued, as Europe has closed its borders and as Greece’s economic crisis has continued, times are harder for the refugees and their hosts. The refugees left their homes not with dreams to end up in Greece, a struggling nation, but for many, that is what has happened. This is what we set out to examine in our film. The project is called Stuck In The Doorway and you can follow it on our site ​stuckinthedoorway.com​. 

 

A documentary filmmaker ALWAYS needs to balance her/his desire to tell a story dramatically with the desires and comfort of the subjects. Although it seems obvious to us filmmakers that the opportunity to tell your story to others is nearly always a positive move, refugees often have reasons that prevent them from speaking. Sometimes these reasons are obvious to us, often they are not. Sometimes it is to protect families back home, sometimes it is fear of jeopardizing their chances of asylum, sometimes it is a cultural fear of making any public statement. In the case of Muslim refugees, being in front of a camera and a foreign man is even more difficult for women.

 

Developing trust is at the center of any filmmaking endeavor and the more sensitive the material, the more important it is to build that trust. The first step to gaining your subject’s trust is best done with no cameras around. Get to know them by talking, eating, hanging out. You must never be in a hurry, no matter how tight your schedule. If you rush and try to start before your trust is built, you will get superficial answers at best. At worst, you might lose their participation entirely. The promise that a documentarian makes to her/his audience is that they will get the inside story, the truth. To reach this truth, you must get to know your subjects. If you don’t build trust, you will do no better than a news crew that comes in, quickly shoots and leaves, on to the next rushed story that they have no connection to, another superficial story.

 

In filming thousands of people over the years, my experience is that the vast majority, with the exception of public officials and criminals, will tell you the truth, perhaps not the entire truth, but a reasonable version of the truth. As a documentarian, one develops a very good sense when someone is hiding something, stretching the truth or outright lying. At first, we were surprised when our antennae told us that we were hearing fabrications; we didn’t expect it. After some reflection and discussion amongst ourselves, we figured out why it was happening. We determined that some of our subjects were talking to us to practice the story they were hoping to tell in their quest for asylum. Sometimes the deviations from the truth were omissions, leaving out details of their lives in their home countries. For instance, we determined that one woman was a prostitute although she told us she was a hairdresser and baker. Others had criminal pasts. Some exaggerated the danger their lives were in. Some were fleeing persecution for their sexual orientation, but they were hiding that.  One unaccompanied minor told us that he was being trained and forced to be a suicide bomber. He was telling somebody’s story, but it was clearly not his.

 

What do you do with a testimony like this? Do you throw the entire thing away? If you are serving on a jury, when you hear one falsehood, you must discount the entire testimony. But in a case like the story of a refugee, a few inconsistencies or even obvious lies do not negate everything s/he is telling you. The hardships they have encountered on their journey are very real and dangerous and the conditions and lack of security in their home countries are very real and often deadly. The sacrifices are real as are their hopes for a safe and stable life for themselves and their children.

 

There is a quote attributed to the film director Alfred Hitchcock, “On a fictional film, the director is God. On a documentary, God is the director.” When you start a documentary, you never know if you will find a story, or what that story is, you must trust your instincts and you must listen much more than you talk. The people you film will tell YOU what the film is about, rather than you telling THEM. You must always remember that it is THEIR story that you are telling, not yours. If they don’t tell you everything or if parts of their story don’t ring true, it is still THEIR story and you are morally and duty-bound to tell that story.

 

“Sincerity - if you can fake that, you've got it made.” This quote by comedian George Burns is actually the way that many filmmakers operate, but when dealing with refugees and the loss that they have experienced, it simply doesn’t work. When you put a refugee in front of a camera, you are opening wounds. You need to be entirely present and to be an authentic witness. It might sound sentimental, but you need to share the pain. It is emotionally exhausting, especially as your project goes on. In each individual interview, you are the mirror, the witness, and the healer for your subject. Once those wounds have been (re)opened (at YOUR instigation, remember) you must stay totally present until there has been catharsis and those wounds can be closed again. There is no faking that and it is a life-changing experience.

 

Permission. This is another area where many filmmakers get into trouble, especially younger and inexperienced filmmakers. If you see something or someone interesting or compelling, it is a natural tendency to want to film it immediately. You might be afraid that the person will stop what they’re doing, or that you’ll never see it again. You might be afraid that if you stop to ask permission, the person won’t act naturally when they resume. These are legitimate concerns, but to rush in can jeopardize your relationship and in some cases, your entire project. If trust is at the center of your relationship with your subject and that trust is necessary for you to find and relay the truth, filming without permission is the surest way to destroy that trust.  This goes double for filming children. No matter how charming they look, or how poignant or heartbreaking what they are doing might be, children below 18 cannot give you permission to film them. Only parents can grant that permission. Other adults in a community are protective of children and if you start shooting without their parents’ permission, an angry scene can develop very quickly. Muslim women are generally modest and can be very uncomfortable when filmed. Just because they are in a public place does not give you the right to film them. Always ask. Certainly the image of one or more women in chadorsor burkascan be graphically striking and it is hard to resist filming them, but you must wait until you have permission. There is a common saying that many filmmakers live by, “It’s easier to ask forgiveness than permission,” but that is a terrible philosophy when working with refugees. The only and important exception to this is when refugees are being subjected to violence, brutality, illegal or inhumane acts. In that case, the filmmaker should certainly step up and document the action. Although potentially dangerous to the filmmakers, physically or legally, we are there to witness, to record and to spread the word.

 

What is the best way to tell refugees’ stories? An immersive approach draws the audience in a much more powerful way. If something is happening, an exchange between a mother and child, an argument, a protest, people waiting to be processed or fed, you want to be inside that event. The camera wants to be a participant, rather than an observer. The viewer needs to feel the people, needs to be there, rather than to observe as an outsider, camera far away, shooting on a telephoto lens. Of course, to be inside is entirely dependent on trust, trust that needs to get stronger as you proceed. 

 

Following on this, it is important to hold your shots and scenes for an appropriate time. It is very fashionable currently to make you editing snappy, with many shots, each held for a very short duration. This is thought to make your film “exciting,” emulating TV commercials and music videos. It is about selling the “sizzle” and not the steak. This tendency often comes from fear on the part of the filmmaker; fear that either his story and subjects are boring, fear that he will lose his audience, that they are not willing to pay attention, fear of his own capabilities as a filmmaker. Quick editing has a number of dangers; it tends to trivialize the material, it dehumanizes your subjects, it makes it harder to retain information presented in the film and perhaps worst of all, it can cause your audience to doubt the veracity of your film. At this point in time, we have all consumed so much media, so many moving images in so many formats, that we are very visually literate. We know how to quickly read images and when we see scenes or films that are so edited, we consciously and subconsciously ask, “what have they taken out, what happens next that we are not seeing.” The corrective to this is to let scenes play out, in real time, so the audience trusts the material, trusts the subjects and trusts that the filmmaker is not trying to trick them.

 

The filming is nearly always the easiest, most enjoyable and shortest part of making a film. Finding the story, and determining the best way to tell that story is painstaking work and it is no wonder that editing a project can take years. Long after you have last seen your subjects, you have a duty to represent them as they see themselves and as their best selves. When you filmed them, they were likely under great stress, in a strange land, separated from family, friends and all they knew, possibly facing legal troubles. Speaking to you on camera also added significant stress. Chances are that they were nervous as well as being exhausted and might not have made their case as strongly or as clearly as they could. Of course, while filming, you did your best to support them, but that work continues long after the shooting stops. In the editing, you have the opportunity and the duty to present them at their best. It is in your best interest to take the time to tell their story properly, as well as it being the fulfillment of the promise you made to them.

 

When working in documentaries with the goal of making the world a better place and giving a platform to those with no voices, it is imperative that you come from a place of love and respect. Stay in that place and you will be able to listen to your subjects and tell THEIR stories and not yours. 

 

 

 

Photographs by Michel Bolsey. For more, see stuckinthedoorway.com​ 

 

 

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Bill Megalos is a documentary filmmaker living in Los Angeles. He has filmed in over 60 countries and specializes in making advocacy films on poverty reduction, global health and human rights. His site is billmegalos.com and the site for Stuck In The Doorway is stuckinthedoorway.com​

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