Six Warnings Documentary Filmmakers

Judging from the comments and Facebook posts in reply to Jill Godmilow’s recently published editorial on “The Act of Killing,” there are a lot of people–documentary filmmakers and fans–who took issue with the Oscar-nominated nonfiction director’s response to the film. There has also been a strangely age-ist reaction–MovieCityNews touted “At 70, Doc-Maker Jill Godmilow Prescribes A 3,800-Word Warning For 39-Year-Old Joshua Oppenheimer”–as if the critique has something to do with Godmilow being some old fuddy-duddy filmmaker who is out of touch with formalist documentary cinema. 

This, of course, is far from the truth, and for those who don’t know Godmilow’s work, she’s extremely cognizant of the ways that documentaries shape reality, and her work addresses these very issues head on. She’s not coming from some place of stodgy, conservative filmmaking. Whether her 1984 film “Far from Poland” or her 1998 film, “What Farocki Taught,” Godmilow’s docs are just as radical in form as anything contemporary filmmakers are making. So with that out of the way, now let’s consider Godmillow’s issues, which should be considered constructive areas for debate, and not, as some may have felt, cheap jabs. (Full disclosure: I helped Godmilow place the piece in Indiewire.)

Before she even gets to her six warnings, she offers this useful series of questions, which all doc filmmakers should consider:

“How is the audience constructed by the film – that is, to whom is the film addressed – and how?  What generalizations are made about the represented…and about us/them differences? What information is privileged or repressed? What arguments are made? Is the experience of the film useful? How are we changed by it?”

I can’t imagine anyone in the documentary world would take issue with these queries. Documentary filmmakers, in their depictions of real people, need to be sensitive and responsible, after all. 

I will reproduce the six warnings below because I think they are worth repeating:

1. Don’t Make History Without Facts

2. Think Twice Before Representing Displays of Violence Perpetrated on Little Brown People By Other Little Brown People

3. Be Fair to Your Social Actors

4. Avoid Building a Film on the Bedrock of Pornography

5. Don’t Compromise Your Audience

6. Avoid Using Documentary For Confessions And/Or Primal Therapy

Now say what you will about how this list may or may not apply to “The Act of Killing.” And sure, #4 may be a bit sensationalistic. But I think these are all worthy points to consider. Documentary filmmakers may want to tease out some of these issues, interrogate them and explore them, but I don’t think it’s fair to suggest that we shouldn’t engage with t.

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