October 30, 2013 10:23 am
Gordon was in conversation with University of Chicago film scholar Jacqueline Stewart in front of a sold out crowd at the Logan Center. Gordon had just returned from the Yamagata film festival in Japan, where he had participated in "The Ethics Machine," a series of discussions on documentary ethics and fair use.
In the talk, Gordon discusses how his thinking on documentary ethics has been shaped through his five decades worth of experience in contributing to hundreds of documentaries and advising hundreds of filmmakers. Points covered include:
- How transparency has always been integral to Kartemquin's work.
- How "the truth of the work depends on the integrity of the maker," and not from any specific stylistic or technical choice, such as "Cinéma vérité" filming.
- Why we always show our work to the subjects of the film before they are finished, explained via a key moment in The New Americans when we acquiesced to a subject's request not to include something they said in the film.
- How documentary ethics differ from journalistic ethics.
- How the ethics of the documentary maker/subject relationship have been affected by the evolution of filmmaking technology.
- The complicated ethics of making Stevie, one of his favorite Kartemquin films, in which "we want you to like Stevie, at the same time that we want you to hold him accountable for what he did."
- How he doesn't believe "that there are rules that get you to the truth" in documentary filmmaking, and how adhering to set rules can actually often led to bad ethical decisions.
- Why, as a principle, we "don't make films about people we don't like or don't respect in some way" (and how that wisdom was first shared with Gordon by the great Ricky Leacock).
- How time manipulations of events around a key scene in A Good Man, our film about the choreographer Bill T. Jones, are ethically legitimate because they are emotionally true in what they represent about Bill T. Jones' character. Bill T. Jones himself is actually in the audience for the talk, and there is a great discussion between him and Gordon over the trust they built as subject and filmmaker.
- The ethics of when it is acceptable for filmmakers to intervene in the lives of documentary subjects, including perhaps giving them money during or after filming, with reference to Hoop Dreams.
- A moment in his career when he felt like he made the wrong ethical decision.
- Why he always asks the same question to any filmmaker with a new documentary idea: "What makes you think you have the right to tell these peoples' story?"
- In summation: "Ethics is not a set of rules... ethics is asking the questions, and understanding that you have to take responsibility for your decisions."
Gordon Quinn's latest documentary project is '63 Boycott.