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Who is Exploiting Whom? Documentaries and their Subjects

Who is Exploiting Whom? Documentaries and their Subjects

Who is Exploiting Whom? Documentaries and their Subjects

by Anthony Kaufman

When Andy Young and Susan Todd, the directors of “It ain’t Love
(screening this week in the Human Rights Watch International Film
Festival) saw the New York Times Magazine cover story (“The FIlmmakers and the Abuser”, Ted Conover, March 30, 1997) about the making of their
documentary about abusive relationships, they were astonished, “Is he
writing about the same film that we’re making?”

The article alleged that in the documentarians’ “quest for truth” they
“dug up some truths that made [their subject] feel used.” Scrutinized
over the possibly exploitative relationship between a filmmaker and the
people they shoot, Conover contested that “in this battle of
allegiances” between a filmmaker’s loyalty to his subject and the one to
the truths of his film, it is “the film that usually wins.”

Young and Todd, an Academy Award-nominated husband and wife team, felt
otherwise. Backed by numerous other filmmakers sympathetic to their
position, they felt that although the article “touched on some valid
issues concerning the filmmaker/subject relationship,” it ultimately
left them feeling slandered. Feeling their own trust had been violated
by the article’s assertions, the documentarians set out to reclaim the
truth about their work.

“I think the article was disappointing to us,” Young says, “because what
we go through, is a very interesting process, and it is a very delicate
balance in terms of managing our relationship to our subjects. We feel
that the writer had a very different idea that he was trying to put
across which didn’t seem to bare a lot of truth to what was going on.”

For this particular project, Young and Todd, spend three months with
Faces, an improv theater group made up of young men and women afflicted
by domestic violence, either on the giving or receiving end. The group
reenacts moments from their own lives, working through these often
painful feelings on stage. And Young and Todd were also “in their faces”
at every step in the process.

Todd defends, “A lot of the really important things we do with our
characters was left out of the article. Things that would have
discredited it. Because it’s such a sensitive subject and they were
really exposing things about themselves, we told them that if they ever
felt uncomfortable about anything that they said or done, they could
tell us and we would take it out of the film.”

“A serious concession to make,” Young concludes, “I don’t usually hear
filmmakers offering that kind of editorial input to their subjects. We
felt that because they were young people and because this was such a
personal subject, we had to give them that out, that safety net.”

Although the New York Times article tried to effectively investigate the
bargain struck between subject and filmmaker, Young asserts a major
error in that this “out” offered to the Faces kids was completely
ignored in the article, making them look insensitive and the process of
documentary filmmaking appearing innately exploitative. Young claims the
writer’s point seemed to be, “If you want to make a good documentary,
you have to burn your subjects in the process.”

In talking about their relationship with the kids in the Faces group,
Todd speaks of it as a complex one, “You do develop a relationship with
them and it’s as complicated as any, and even more complicated as in
your non-work life. There are times when you misunderstand each other,
there are times when you might want to do something where the other
person doesn’t. It’s all about feelings. Our bottom line here is we’re
making a film about a difficult subject and we’re looking for people who
want to take part in that journey. And that challenge. And these were
kids who really wanted to do that.”

The article focused on one member in the group, Brian Teglio, who the
writer felt was especially manipulated by the filmmakers. Young admits
it was uncomfortable for Brian to open up. And that ironically the New
York Times article which singled him out continued the process of
awareness beyond that of the making of the documentary. “But was he
ashamed and sorry that he did it? Well, he wouldn’t be coming to the
screenings next week if he did.” Additionally, Teglio also wrote a
letter to the magazine, published a few weeks after the article,
explaining how pleased he was with the finished film.

The question arises, “Who is exploiting who?” The documentarians for
exposing their subjects or now, one step further, the writer for judging
the filmmakers and their subjects in order to make some preconceived
point about documentary filmmaking. Young says, “I think the thing that
really disappointed me is that [Conover] felt that there’s something
fundamentally wrong with what we were doing… He’s taking the point of
view that to reveal yourself in a documentary, to let your guard down
and be open, is fundamentally self-destructive… And I flatly disagree
with that point of view and there’s remarkable proof in Brian himself,
that he’s grown tremendously through this experience.”

Young explains, “When we’re interviewing Brian, and he makes some
comment about the size of his penis and the writer says, ‘One wonders if
he should have had his lawyer present,’ and I thought Gosh, if we can’t
talk about the size of our penis without having our lawyer present what
does it all come down to?”

Young and Todd are proud of their film and the relationships they now
have with their new friends in Faces. Not just subjects, the people in
their documentaries are human beings; they both give and gain with their
participation in a project. In their previous film “Children of Fate“,
Todd speaks fondly of a woman who thrived on the filmmakers’ company,
“it turned her on and made her feel important.”

There are many kinds of relationships between filmmaker and subject,
some resistant, some participant, some passive, but to categorize
documentary filmmaking as a singular relationship, either innately
exploitative or not, is a claim that Young and Todd are committed to
refute. “People are definitely affected by the camera, I would never
suggest that they’re not,” Young admits, “People are ON when we’re
filming… but even when it happens, it’s not what you’re capturing is
untrue; it’s often that it’s very revealing about somebody.”

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