Points North Documentary Film forums: The ethics of documenting kids’ lives
CAMDEN — Over the weekend, the Camden International Film Festival screened a number of full length and short documentary films in which the main subject was children and teens. As someone who has worked with teens as a reporter and an author for a number of years, I was particularly interested in one of the Points North Documentary Film Forums titled “Documenting Youth,” in which four directors from the 2014 CIFF program discussed how they dealt with the ethical challenges of placing children and adolescents in front of the camera.
Moderated by Charlotte Cook, director of programming from the Hot Docs Canadian International Documentary Festival, the four directors included Jean-François (Guidelines), Andrew Droz Palermo (Rich Hill), Teodora Mihai (Waiting for August) and Amanda Wilder (Approaching the Elephant)
Throughout the busy weekend, I was only able to watch two of the documentaries from directors in this panel, namely, Rich HIll and Waiting for August. In Rich Hill, the film, described by IMdb.com: “intimately chronicles the turbulent lives of three boys living in an impoverished Midwestern town and the fragile family bonds that sustain them.” In Waiting for August, “Fifteen-year-old Georgiana is left to raise her six siblings in Bacau (Romania), since her mother has to work abroad to get by. Torn between adolescence and heavy responsibilities, the teenage girl struggles to keep everyone afloat.”
The spectacular power of a documentary film is that it forces you to abandon the drive-by judgment and compassion fatigue that occurs when you first read the log line of these films. In Rich Hill, the initial image that stuck out for me most was a ramshackle house where one of the boys lived. The house was made of poor materials, badly in need of paint, anchored by concrete cracked porch. Junk and debris flank the front of the house. The raggedy back yard is swamped by a large puddle of water, in which a push lawn mower is submerged. The defining image for me in Waiting for August, was the tiny apartment and lower bunk bed where nearly all six kids, ranging from 5 to 16 years old, huddled in sleep, like a pack of puppies. The main character, Georgiana, is sleeping, curled up in a thin blanket on the kitchen banquette because there is no other place for her.
In both films, it’s obvious that the directors built a close bond and trust with the children and teens they filmed, allowing the viewer to see something beyond the crushing reality of poverty on adolescence. That trust allowed the teens, in particular, to speak to the camera as if it was a confidant, in some cases, divulging their deepest feelings about the trauma and the chaos in which they live. Thanks to the directors’ earned trust, in a very short time, the viewer is allowed to understand what makes these kids tick, what hurts them the most and whether they’re able to find the resilience to stay optimistic about their lives, or succumb to the same hopelessness that plague some of their parents.
Any time someone chooses to make a documentary about a minor child or teenager, the director requires a signed consent form. In both of these films, several parents were present during filming (even if by telephone). Still, all the while watching these documentaries, I couldn’t help but wonder if these adolescents, whose first names and home towns are mentioned, really truly understood the impact their admissions on film had on their digital footprint. One teenager, in particular, revealed a disturbing secret, which has the possibility of coming back to haunt him in his older years. That was the crux of this forum, to discuss the unique ethical challenges of placing children and adolescents in front of the camera, and how to artistically represent their experiences without unwittingly exploiting them.
In the panel, we learned that the directors were constantly asking themselves these same questions. (In this piece, I’m choosing to focus on the two filmmakers whose work I’d seen.) Moderator Cook asked what the long-term impact was on the kids.
Droz Palermo, director of Rich Hill, said “During production, I was more concerned how we were impacting them right then. But, I do think it had a positive impact on them in the long run. They felt like they were heard. People received the film well; it was very positive. But at the time, some of the harder parts of the film, I did wonder about that.” He added that small funds have been set up for the kids and when the film screened at Sundance Film Festival, a generous benefactor came forward to help some of the kids with groceries and funds toward their education.
Mihai, director of Waiting for August, said that she developed close bonds with all the children while filming, and even took Georgiana on a trip with her to meet her family. She still remains in touch with them today.
“The main character wants to be a filmmaker, so it did have a good impact,” she said. “As far as the long-term, it’s too early to tell.”
Cook asked: “What was your consideration about what happens when they’re older and they see this representation of themselves is on the screen. You’re trying to represent reality, but in the back of your mind are you always asking what are the implications of putting them in your film?”
Both directors said that they weighed certain scenes very carefully and chose not to include certain scenes because their inclusion could have harmed the kids.
“There were two subjects in the movie that I chose not to include, which included the absence of the father figure and when a nun came from child services,” said Mihai. “I just stopped filming because I knew that my being there might provoke the nun. I wanted to show it, but could I afford it? I was constantly measuring the kids’ attention spans and mood to know when was the right time to be there and when it wasn’t.”
“It was difficult,” said Droz Palermo. “There were certainly way worse things I filmed than what was shown. But, it was always our goal to show scenes where the audience would be sympathetic to the parents.”
I appreciated the honesty and bravery of all of the directors to attend such a forum, as this topic can be thorny and I thought they did a very good job explaining their own ethical approach to the subject matter. Clearly, these directors cared deeply about the kids they filmed and it showed in the beauty and stark reality of their finished efforts.
Kay Stephens can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.