What Happens When Your Documentary Subject Lies

'The Wrong Light': Lessons learned after being lured into a compelling (but not altogether true) story about human trafficking.
"The Wrong Light"
"The Wrong Light"
Cinema Guild

[Editor’s Note: Producer Susan MacLaury and her non-profit production organization, Shine Global, believed they found a unique story about the sex trafficking of young girls by desperate parents and the activist rescuing them. Deep into the production, however, alarm bells started going off about the veracity of their story. The resulting documentary, “The Wrong Light,” captures the story of the filmmakers questioning the girls and the shelter’s founder as they search for the truth. IndieWire invited MacLaury, a former educator and social worker, to discuss the lessons she learned and what all documentary filmmakers need to consider before they start a film.]

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The inspiration for “The Wrong Light” came from Natalie Jesionka, then an adjunct professor at Rutgers University. She had just completed a Fulbright Scholarship in Thailand, in which she studied different approaches to counter the trafficking of young Thai girls. Natalie had been impressed in particular by Mickey Choothesa’s “upstream” approach that attempted to prevent parents from selling their daughters, then housed and educated those willing to surrender their custody to him.

We were excited to do this film because sex trafficking globally is a problem that annually affects millions of people, half of whom are children. From a documentary perspective, this was already an old story in late 2011, but telling it from the perspective of impoverished parents who felt they had no choice hadn’t ever been documented.

Our first shoot in Fall 2013 yielded interviews that were confusing once we got them in the editing room.  Still believing that Choothesa was a truthful but a poor translator, the directors [Dave Adams and Josie Swantek] returned to Thailand in early 2014 with a female Thai interpreter. She immediately cast doubt on the veracity of his accounts of the girls and their families.

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Josie and Dave believed the girls’ accounts and those of their parents, despite Mickey’s claims that they were merely saving face. “The Wrong Light” morphed into a very different story, as the burden was now on us to prove who was telling the truth.

Making “The Wrong Light” has prompted all of us to reflect on the choices we made and what we might have done differently, and also how we might have better structured the narrative. Here are some hard lessons we learned that will hopefully be of use to other documentary filmmakers.

Vet Your Subjects

Mickey Choothesa in "The Wrong Light"
Mickey Choothesa in “The Wrong Light”Cinema Guild

Rather than blindly trust others’ firsthand accounts, filmmakers must do their own research into their subjects’ backgrounds, supporting organizations, individuals who have been involved with them, and the accounts they’ve related via local news sources, Google searches, and financial records.

Just because an organization is well known, do not presume they’ve fully vetted. In our case, Choothesa’s COSA organization had a 501(C)(3) in the U.S. and was funded by well-respected groups like Hands Across the Water.

Use an Independent Fixer and Interpreter

Avoid using anyone closely tied to the subjects you’re shooting, particularly if they’re part of the same organization. Poll other documentarians who have worked in your subject and geographical area to get recommendations of competent, discerning professionals without hidden agendas.

You must ensure that you can bridge the language divide. Make sure your fixer/interpreter is fluent in whatever languages they need to translate.

"The Wrong Light"
“The Wrong Light”Cinema Guild

Be Culturally Educated

Learn as much as you can about your subjects’ immediate physical, social, and political environments to ensure you’re as respectful as possible. Read what you can historically to add that layer of context. Understand the cultural demands that may well impact what subjects can comfortably say and do.

In our case, the Thai cultural norm of respecting elders made it harder for the girls and their families to imagine any wrongdoing by Choothesa. Similarly, since Josie worked with a female Thai interpreter, that may have made it easier for our subjects to tell the truth rather than to save face.

Read More: One-Person Crew: The Pros and Cons of Making a Documentary By Yourself

Do No Harm: Working with Underage Subjects

By working with underage subjects, filmmakers invariably become important persons in their lives, even if for only a short time. Every subject we’ve ever interviewed has told us they go through stages of their relationship with their directors and crews, and that ultimately to some extent they play an in loco parentis role. Filmmakers must understand and accept this responsibility.

Everyone involved must understand that participating in a documentary is a life-changing experience. In this day of social media, filmmakers cannot guarantee total privacy; film subjects will be exposed to attention and scrutiny they never anticipated. Young people have not yet fully developed their capacity for critical thinking: The challenge is helping them appreciate the possible consequences.

"The Wrong Light"
“The Wrong Light”Cinema Guild

By definition, minors arepowerless in many respects; they depend on adults around them to be loving, respectful, and protective. Kids who have been exploited by trusting adults have experienced a devastating breach of confidence which itself is life-changing. Giving them time to process this while modeling a very different, trustworthy adult role is critical.

You need to fully consider the potential ethical dilemmas before filming. These may be determined by your subjects’ previous life experiences and the challenges they pose. If you’re working with kids who were forced into untenable positions in which they’ve done things they regret, or which have been hurtful to them in significant ways, we must first do no harm. Secondly, we must let them set the parameters within which they can most comfortably act.

In the end, we protect ourselves by acting in our subjects’ best interests.

“The Wrong light” opened at the Laemmle Monica Film Center in Los Angeles July 21.

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