‘Documentary filmmakers and their ethical decisions’

  • A Witte

Student thesis: Master's Thesis: Humanistic Studies


This study aims to gain more insight into the experiences of Dutch documentary makers working with subjects under the circumstances of inequality between the two parties and how, from this position of a power imbalance, the topic of representation is approached. In scrutinizing the experiences of these documentary makers, this research seeks to understand what these experiences mean in terms of ethical decision making processes in media and how they link to underlying values and motivations connected to meaning making (in media making). The inequality of power, through the power held by the documentary maker because of the possession of a camera (and crew), is inherent to the relationship between filmmaker and subject. Apart from this, all ten documentary makers who are part of this explorative, qualitative research have experience working with subjects who have either refugee status or background; or worked with a subject with a non-western background in a situation of (economical) exploitation and/or oppression, creating a socio-economic or socio-politic inequality. Because of these inequalities, documentary filmmakers are confronted with ethical problems and ethical dilemmas in their work at a much higher rate than other professions. Another factor that is also considered in this research is the representation of the subject. There is little qualitative research on documentary ethics based on the experience of the documentary makers concerning their relationship with their subjects. Between the professionals, there is no habit of (informally) discussing their experiences, but instead most decision making processes are based on internal, ‘intuition’-based processes. This research found similarities and differences between the documentary makers’ ethical stances, motivations and aspirations as well as possible approaches that show how documentary makers handle inequality and representation of their subjects. The most poignant approach on how to counteract inequality is to find some form of ‘exchange’, which was experienced and used in terms of taking (from the subject) and giving (to the subject). Others found a way to incorporate their subjects into the making of the film, which also decreased inequality and had positive effects on representation.
Date of Award1 Jan 2018
Original languageAmerican English
SupervisorA. C. Suransky (Supervisor) & E. M. Grootegoed (Supervisor)

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