One day in 1878 Eadward Muybridge was able to capture a horse galloping with 24 stereoscopic cameras. Since that transcending afternoon when Muybridge proved that all four hooves of a horse are off the ground, capturing motion and creating film has fascinated millions of artists and given them the ability to transport their audience to a different time or place. Over the next 100 years, filmmakers have explored the cosmos, the deepest depths of oneself and transported us to realms and worlds that we could only dream of. For much of this time, filmmaking was an expensive medium and the filmmaking process limited itself to trained professionals in light and camera operation. However, In the last 30 years, digital cinematography has democratized this industry and given anyone who has a phone or a digital camera the ability to capture moving image. As our ability as a society to capture moving image and broadcast that to the world becomes more and more available to the masses, there is a strong need to discuss the responsibility a filmmaker has if any. The technological advances in filmmaking have not only put a camera in everyone’s hands, but it has also allowed the computer graphics, animations, and compositing to become so photorealistic that it is hard for the audience to distinguish what is real and what is digitally created. As technology continues to allow filmmaker’s to make the audience believe any reality and any situation, filmmakers have a responsibility to their audience and society outside the movie.
In any other artistic medium, whether it be music or painting, theater or photography, only a few of our senses are accessed and the beauty of these mediums is the allowance of our other senses to imagine and fill in the blanks. What makes film different is its ability to use both audio and visual to convey a story. Are there aspects to our real world that should not be revealed in film? Is it wrong to show the intricate workings of robbing a bank at a real banking institution? In essence if you give the audience blueprints to achieving an illegal action, is there a moral or ethical liability the filmmaker has if the illegal action is carried out? How do we distinguish what is a violation and what isn’t? What separates fantasy from reality? Who is to blame if there is such an action? Is it the filmmaker’s responsibility or is it more of a reflection on the society we live in? These are just a few of the questions, this paper hopes to address.
Early on, film tried to answer some of these questions by dividing film into categories and genres. Just like any medium of modern versus abstract, film divides itself primarily into two categories: Fiction and non-fiction or documentary. One could argue that documentary films are the only true form of filmmaking because they are revealing something real about our world and highlighting this reality for the audience. In France, the Lumiere brothers took their father’s photographic firm and began creating processes so they could feed film through a pinhole camera. Their first film, worker’s leaving the factory, is a representation of direct cinema, where the camera is simply capturing the action in front of it. Like most of the early Lumière films, the worker’s leaving the factory consists of a single, unedited view illustrating an aspect of everyday life. There is no apparent intentional camera movement, and the film consists of one continuous real-time shot. The Lumiere’s most famous film, Train pulling into the station, was the first hint at a filmmaker’s power over their audience. As legend states, when the film was first shown, the audience was so overwhelmed by a large, powerful, locomotive headed right towards them that people screamed and ran towards the back. A german journalist, Helmuth Karasek writing for Der Spiegel, wrote that the film “had a particularly lasting impact, and caused fear, terror, even panic.” This is not uncommon for new mediums to overwhelm an audience and for the next ten years, the Lumiere brothers sent filmmakers on journeys around the world to capture things that most people had never seen. Tom Gunning writes about “cinema of attraction” versus narrative cinema as a medium which engages with the audience and “focuses on what they could show versus what they could tell.” In a purely exhibitionist style, filmmakers focused on the audience as actors looked at the camera breaking what Gunning refers to as “the realistic illusion of film….displacing its visibility, willing to rupture a self enclosed fictional world for a chance to solicit the attention of the spectator.”
Since that time, filmmakers have been trying to grab the audience’s attention. In the documentary genre, which is meant to document some aspect of reality or truth in society, Direct cinema is meant to be an observational understanding of what is going on in reality by acting as a fly on the wall and simply observing the actions in front of the camera. While this type of cinema is simply meant to reflect society, direct cinema can also be the most challenging for a filmmaker in terms of moral and ethical responsibility. Let us say that a filmmaker is documenting the daily life of a drug addict. Acting only as a fly on the wall, they capture where the subject gets the drugs, documents how to do the drugs, and finally the effects the drugs have on that person. From a filmmaking standpoint, this potentially is a very powerful film that can evoke emotion and even bring a dark reality to light educating the audience on this aspect of society. However, if the audience then leaves the theater and uses the education to buy drugs, inject them the same way they learned in the film is there an ethical violation the filmmaker made? At what point does the creation of a film and the filmmaker’s responsibility stop?
Two of the most famous documentary filmmakers Errol Morris and Werner Herzog, often talk about moral responsibility and ethics as a documentary filmmaker. In Herzog’s 2005 documentary, Grizzly Man, Herzog uses footage and interviews to chronicle the life and death of Timothy Treadwell, a man living amongst Grizzly bear’s in Alaska. In an interview with AFI, Herzog reveals that during the attack on Treadwell and his girlfriend, which eventually led to their demise, the camera was switched on before the attack started, but the lens cap was never removed, so all that existed was the audio from those events. Herzog says he knew immediately that this audio would not be in the film. His reasoning for that is “you would violate the right and the dignity of the death of these two individuals. You just don’t do it” Herzog goes on to discuss some amateur video taken during the 9/11 attacks on the world trade center where people are leaping to their deaths from the 106th floor and it has never been shown because again that would be a moral violation of the dead.
As filmmaking has progressed both in technology and the stories that are being told there have been films that are narrative depictions of reality done in a documentary style. The most notable of this film style is Mitchell Block’s No Lies. In this short film, Block intends to document a friend’s getting ready to go out. The film done in a cinema verite style reveals the trauma suffered by a rape victim. This is a written narrative, but done in a documentary style. In 1977 Vivian Sobchack wrote “the film itself demonstrates and commits rape- and does so in a way that leaves the unprepared as an assault on one’s person, one’s pride, and one’s expectation.” The filmmaker has created a reality and reflection of society as truth in a narrative form. He uses the accepted styles to cross the documentary/narrative threshold combining the two. While the film is extremely powerful the film itself is presented in a false manner, violating the preconceived rules between filmmaker and audience. This can be furthered explored in narrative feature films like Paranormal Activity. Director Oren Peli talks about creating the feeling by using “found footage” of the events he wishes to document. Just like any medium, film language and telling a story through this medium has evolved, but the intelligence of the audience has evolved as well. No audience member would scream and run to the back of the room if they saw Train Arriving at the Station today. One could argue that as the audience has evolved, the methods of making a powerful film have evolved as well and blending truth and fantasy is the only logical path for filmmaking to take, but I maintain that these two genres should always be kept separate and distant as it is important for the audience to know what is truth in society and what is depiction.
Moving to the narrative form, films usually are dictated by society. As films have become more realistic, more fantastical, and with no subject off limits, film has also had the ability to dictate society. A recent example of such an argument can be made around the the shootings in Columbine, CO in 1999. In the case of Columbine, the two assailants were avid fans of Oliver Stone’s Natural Born Killers and often referred to themselves as such in home movies. In addition, the movie Basketball Diaries shows a fantasy sequence where the main actor dressed in a black trenchcoat massacres six fellow students. Both movies, along with a handful of video game creators were sued by relatives of the murder victims based on the idea that “the shooters were influenced by the movies they saw.” It is difficult to imagine that the events at Columbine would not have happened if the certain scenes were left out of Natural Born Killers or Basketball Diaries, but one could speculate. Each film has its own voice and the censorship of such films would be a violation of our first amendment rights, but the question remains, do such films impact society in a way that creates a reality from what was fantasy.
As the youtube generation becomes more and more relevant, a more recent video further explores moral and ethical responsibility. In May 2013, two machete wielding men attacked a london soldier and killed him. With a camera rolling the whole time, one of the attackers approaches with bloodied hands holding a knife and machete justifying his acts. This video immediately went viral and has been seen by millions of people. This video is documenting the actions, but at what point if any should the camera have been put down and aid given to the victim. What is possibly more disturbing than anything about this video is the apathy of the people around the victim. While some do try and come to his aid, others simply walk by the chaos. As our society has become apathetic to these situations has film in some way made us desensitized to the horrors of our own society.
In the end, a filmmaker is trying to evoke an emotion or response from the audience. While this is an art form and one that cannot be censored, the moral responsibility of a filmmaker must lie within. Only they can decide what is right to show and what is not, but as our society continues to move towards violence and chaos, part of our desensitivity could be related to the amount of violence and chaos we as audience members have seen in film. Some filmmakers may feel that a response by society whether positive or negative gives meaning to their film and therefore was a success, but film can be a dangerous tool like any medium and the ability for a filmmaker to navigate the line of moral responsibility to society with societies own reality should be a careful and conscious issue at the forefront of any film.