The beginnings of the documentary can be spoken of as the beginning of cinema itself. In December 1895, the Lumiere brothers first screened their one-minute cinema scenes in Paris. The Arrival of a train and Workers leaving the Lumiere factory marked the first among the several films of brief events by the Lumiere brothers. Referred to as ‘actualities’, as their titles suggested, these films captured brief instances from everyday life. These films were shown to audiences the world over by travelling agents, and also by local people trained in this new medium called cinema.

The draw of these actualities was seen to lie in the fact that audiences enjoyed familiar scenes from daily life when shown on the screen. Documentary Directors identified themselves as creative artists for whom ethical behaviour is at the core of their projects. At a time when there is unprecedented financial pressure on makers to lower costs and increase productivity, filmmakers reported that they routinely found themselves in situations where they needed to balance ethical responsibilities against practical considerations. Their comments can be grouped into three conflicting sets of responsibilities: to their subjects, their viewers, and their own artistic vision and production exigencies.

Filmmakers resolved these conflicts on an ad-hoc basis and argued routinely for situational, case-by-case ethical decisions. At the same time, they shared unarticulated general principles and limitations. They commonly shared such principles as, in relation to subjects, “Do no harm” and “Protect the vulnerable,” and, in relation to viewers, “Honour the viewer’s trust.”

Filmmakers observed these principles with widely shared limitations. In relation to subjects, they often did not feel obliged to protect subjects who they believed had themselves done harm or who had independent access to media, such as celebrities or corporate executives with their own public relations arms. In relation to viewers, they often justified the manipulation of individual facts, sequences, and meanings of images; if it meant telling a story more effectively and helped viewers grasp the main, and overall truthful, themes of a story.

Finally, filmmakers generally expressed frustration in two areas. They daily felt the Lack of clarity and standards in ethical practice. They also lacked support for ethical deliberation under typical work pressures. This survey demonstrated that filmmakers generally are acutely aware of moral dimensions of their craft, and of the economic and social pressures that affect them.

This demonstrates the need to have a more public and ongoing conversation about ethical problems in documentary filmmaking. Filmmakers need to develop a more broadly shared understanding of the nature of their problems and to evolve a common understanding of fair ways to balance their various obligations. Documentary deals with fact, not fiction. Most importantly, documentaries delve into a non-fictional world with real events, real issues, real conflict, real people and real emotions. Everything seen and heard on screen is grounded in accuracy and has no element of fiction.


Concerns about documentary ethics are not new, but they have intensified over the past several years in response to changes in the industry. By the late 1990s, U.S. Documentary Directors had become widely respected media makers, recognized as independent voices at a time of falling public confidence in mainstream media and in the integrity of the political process. At the same time, documentary television production was accelerating to fill the need for quality programming in ever expanding screen time, generating popular, formula-driven programs.

The growth of commercial opportunities and the prominence of politics as a documentary subject also produced tensions. Documentary Directors, whether they were producing histories for public television, nature programs for cable, or independent political documentaries, found themselves facing not only economic pressure but also close scrutiny for the ethics of their practices. Controversies emerged about several documentaries.

Filmmakers were drawn into criticism of their peers, while lacking common standards of reference. Unlike journalism, documentary filmmaking has largely been an individual, freelance effort. Documentary Directors typically are small business owners, selling their work to a range of distributors, mostly in television. Even producers working for large outlets, such as Discovery, National Geographic, and PBS, are typically independent contractors. Individual filmmakers may develop concurrent projects with and for a range of television programmers, from PBS to the Food Channel, balancing sponsored work (for income) with projects of the heart.

Some of these outlets may ask filmmakers to observe standards and practices, and/or ethics codes derived from print journalism and broadcast news and developed in conjunction with journalism programs in higher education. For the most part, however, when it comes to standards and ethics (and even independent fact checking), documentary Directors have largely depended on individual judgment, guidance from executives, and occasional conversations at film festivals and on listservs.

Filmmakers thus find themselves without community norms or standards. Institutional standards and practices remain proprietary to the companies for which the filmmakers may be working and do not always reflect the terms they believe are appropriate to their craft. Their communities are far-flung, virtual, and sporadically rallied at film festivals and on listservs. Filmmakers need to share both experience and vocabulary and to be able to question their own and others’ decision-making processes without encountering prohibitive risk.

Documentary Directors need a larger, more sustained and public discussion of ethics, and they also need safe zones to share questions and to report concerns. Any documentary code of ethics that has credibility for a field with a wide range of practices must develop from a shared understanding of values, standards, and practices. A more extended and vigorous conversation is needed in order to cultivate such understanding in this field of creative practice.

The documentary filmmaker should speak with an insurance broker and a clearance attorney early in the process and look for professionals who have a solid background in intellectual property and other film clearance issues. The world of documentary filmmaking is much broader and much more compelling. Documentary filmmaking can capture vanishing ways of life (Nanook of the North), poetically transform our vision (Koyaanisqatsi) and expose injustice (Harlan County, USA). Documentary filmmaking combines the power and grace of fictional filmmaking with the boldness and authenticity of stories taken directly from life.