Documentary: both sides of the camera

Forbidden Lie$ director Anna BroinowskiFor better or worse, documentary filmmaking has been plagued by the shadow of subjectivity since the first images were committed to celluloid. Trent Griffiths asks, does it even matter? Is subjectivity inevitable? Should the subjectivity of the lens be embraced? Is objectivity the (unattainable) ideal documentary should strive for?

While most of those questions are wide open for debate, the latter seems to have a clear answer.

Understanding the context in which films are made and the way audiences read them does matter.

Documentaries are powerful cultural artefacts – they inspire, infuriate, motivate and bend opinion. So having the right framework to understand a filmmaker’s point of view and the rules they lay out is essential to informed and healthy criticism.

An example? Canadian filmmaker Brett Gaylor’s high energy documentary RiP: A Remix Manifesto blatantly advocates the dismantling of current copyright laws. Right before the title credits his voiceover states, “There are people out there calling my favourite artist a criminal is exactly why I need to make this film”, and he proceeds to

make an entertaining case for freer exchange of intellectual material.

When RiP was released in Australia, one well respected and widely read critic wrote, “There are some good points made but the film would have been so much more effective and less frustrating, had it been given a balanced point of view.”

In one way the critic is right – some of Gaylor’s arguments are flimsy and his conclusions tenuous. But Gaylor stated his bias up front and never pretended to be

balanced. With that bias in mind it is a very well made film. Yet there is an unsettling assumption from the critic that a balanced ‘point of view’ is inherently better – that there isn’t space in the documentary form to engage with just one side of an argument. It feels as though the territory of criticising the film (as a cultural artefact) and getting drawn into the argument the film presents are being confused.

The point is not to call out some difference of opinion between filmmakers and critics but rather show that for all the acceptance of subjectivity in history, journalism and critical theory, we don’t have a framework for discussing subjectivity in documentary. That ol’ subjective/objective question persists, and it is getting louder.


As documentary evolves, more and more filmmakers are telling personal stories in which they appear as voices or characters, an active part of the unfolding narrative. The observational distance of old is being replaced by direct intervention in the action, constructing scenarios or manipulating subjects for some desired result. It is an expanding scale, if not a slippery slope, crying out for re-examination.

And who better to get the discussion rolling than those on the front line, the documentary filmmakers.

For Gary Doust, director of 2002’s Making Venus, becoming directly involved in the action he was documenting was never an option. His fly-on-the-wall doco charts the inglorious downfall of first time producer/cousin team Jason and Julian as inexperience and hubris derails their dream of indie film success. In the first days of the five-year shoot, Doust’s distance was challenged and he drew a very clear line in the sand.

“It was actually pretty early on when I found myself in a room with the two producers when they were asking me whether they should fire one of the crew members. I was just there observing and recording their conversation, and I really had to draw the line and say to them ‘I can’t advise you on this, it’s wrong.’ Even though it could have

made my film better – by firing someone there could have been more drama – I really didn’t think it was my place to get involved with that.”

This incident illustrates Doust acknowledges himself – that the act of recording makes complete detachment and objectivity impossible. Setting up a shot, adding lighting, making decisions about coverage, editing, adding music are all intervening acts often designed to present objectivity while actually undermining the romantic ideal of the documentary as objective truth. Still, Doust believes the primary aim of documentary filmmaking should be to strive for that truth.

“Absolutely they do (have a responsibility to aim for objectivity). But the line seems to have been blurred by the commercial ‘factual’ shows and reality TV where it’s ok to bend the truth or take something out of context or provoke a response. That is not what documentary is, and you’re cheating the audience by making films that way.”

His method of working – one man and a camera – is designed to nestle as close as possible to the observational end of the scale. “There’s a point when you’re making observational documentaries, if you spend enough time with your subjects they almost forget that you’ve got a camera. And that is a good place to be for a documentary filmmaker, but you can’t and shouldn’t abuse that. You need to be really careful about that line.”


Independent distributor Gil Scrine – who handled the local release of Making Venus, as well as RiP and similarly overtly subjective films such as The Cove – disagrees with Doust’s defense of objectivity as the aim of documentary.

“There is a scale from fly on the wall to the filmmaker putting themselves in the middle of the action,” he acknowledges. “It’s part of the human condition to get involved, and to not get involved is pretence. Just as history is always written by the victor, documentaries are written by the filmmaker.”

Revisionism in the field of history happened in earnest from the middle of last century, reassessing what was written in historical documents no longer as irrefutable fact but as one version of events imbued with the social and political agenda of the creator. This notion of historical subjectivity has become so ingrained in contemporary academia, literature and art that the mention of it feels like stating the bleeding obvious. The public these days are more informed and literate than ever, so cultural subjectivity is more or less taken for granted.

Yet in the field of documentary, objectivity and balance seemingly remain the assumed default.

According to Scrine, that assumption is a fatal flaw.

“Documentary will always fail the truth, because access is always denied.”

He is of course talking about access to the absolute truth of a subject or a situation: access to the motivations and subtexts and hidden agendas that drive every story.

Scrine may have a point in that accepting the limitations of access as a filmmaker can open far more compelling subjective perspectives.


In chasing down the ‘truth’ behind author Norma Khouri’s autobiographical account of her best friend’s honour killing in Jordan, director Anna Broinowski was unwillingly drawn into the frame of her film Forbidden Lie$.

“I didn’t want to be a subject in this film, but I ended up a subject by accident because when we got to Jordan and all the witnesses she promised would turn up and front the camera and say that the story about her murdered friend was true mysteriously failed to materialise, I had no one interacting with her on screen so I had to sit in frame with her.”

But what started as a necessary move from a technical point of view yielded fascinating results thematically. “The film became about the relationship between subject and filmmaker. And when Norma points out that she can’t trust me because I was being a filmmaker, she’s quite right to do that, and I want the audience to walk out not only not trusting Norma but also questioning me.”

Broinowski pauses, considering the implications of that wholesale questioning. “Don’t trust anything,” she concludes. “Especially if it’s presented as a documentary, is what I’m trying to say.”

While that interpretation might erode the power of the filmmaker as having a privileged and didactic point of view, Broinowski thinks filmmakers have a new opportunity to connect with audiences. “With the proliferation of YouTube and the average Joe punter as amateur filmmaker, there is a new acceptance of the filmmaker as subject,” Broinowski explains. “It’s an erosion of objectivity in this century, so when a filmmaker finds themselves in their own film, what they’re really acknowledging to the audience is a perception that we all share now, that anything that you see captured on film is a subjective reality… Audiences these days are very sophisticated, they know that documentary film just like fiction film; a creative interpretation of reality. Why not let them in on the tricks? Let the audience in on the game.”

So, according to Broinowski, audiences do understand the subjectivity inherent in documentaries, but only through their understanding of popular new media. The contribution the filmmaking fraternity in the form of a common discourse and framework of ethics is still wanting. “There is no institutionalised ethical protocol for documentary makers,” Broinowski notes. “It’s case by case – each documentary maker has to work out ethically what they’re comfortable with doing, because we’re dealing with real people’s lives so we have a responsibility to honour the trust that they’ve given us. Really you live or die by your own conscience.”

When Norma Khouri betrayed Broinowski’s trust through repeated and calculated lies, leading the filmmaker to dead end after dead end in Jordan, all bets were off. The director changed tack and started to play with her subject. “I wanted her to dupe me, I wanted her to betray me, I thought that it was what would enable me to get as close as possible to capturing who she really is.”

Although drawn in front of the camera against her will, once the contract of distance between filmmaker and subject had been breached, Broinowski allowed herself to cross her own theoretical lines to create the best story. “You can get away with a lot as long as you entertain people.”


What happens then if you disregard those theoretical lines from the start? What if you set out not to record a situation but to create change? Academy Award winning director Ross Kauffman did exactly that with Born Into Brothels. He began documenting his partner at the time Zana Briski as she taught photography to the children of red light district workers in Calcutta.

Kauffman then used the documentary to try and secure school places and career paths for these children, saving them from bleak futures.

The film was just one aspect of a concerted agenda to help these kids better their lives. “We really were just taking every moment as it came and reacting to it, and the idea of the film was secondary.”

It’s clear listening to him speak that the responsibility to make an objective observational documentary was – and still is – the last thing on his mind.

“As far as incorporating Zana in the story, it just made sense from a narrative point of view,” Kauffman explains. “It wasn’t something we planned on doing, it just naturally evolved and I was just reacting to it as a filmmaker and a storyteller. I could have told the story without her, but it just made a better story. And more importantly, it was the truth of what was happening.”

And so, in an offhanded comment, Kauffman illuminates the heart of this whole discussion – representing the truth of what is happening. If the truth of the moment as seen by the filmmaker is represented in the best way they’re able to, audiences, critics and other filmmakers will respond well. If artifice and ego intervene, be it in the form of the filmmaker or any other set up scenario, the work will ring false and the presence of filmmaker as subject becomes so much more visibly problematic.

The irony of that conclusion isn’t lost. That the ‘truth’ of a situation dictates the success or otherwise of a film’s subjectivity seems like a contradiction in terms; a documentary Ouroboros. But truth within the moment is a very different proposition to truth as an intangible ideal. Just as documenting the truth of a moment is very different to the idealised truth of capital ‘D’ documentary.

More discussion of the ground new documentaries cover is a good starting point for understanding these differences.

The final word goes to Anna Broinowski, who jumped down the documentary rabbit hole and came out the other side, in front of the camera but no less a director. “Filmmakers have to lift the bar – we have to be so much more entertaining than we used to be because audiences are so much more sophisticated now. Everyone knows how to operate a camera, everyone knows how to make a film, so they expect us to do things that they can’t.”


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