Some thoughts on documentary ethics in no particular order

Using others’ personalities, histories, stories, emotions and thoughts as material for your art is a strange occupation. Documentarians are not the only artists to do this, but we do it in a way that is more obvious and consistent than any other art that I’m aware of. We expose our sources – often their name, but also their face, body, voice, presence and way of being. And if we find a way of not showing any of those things, we still use a combination of moving image and audio to make the audience view their personhood our way.

Gypsy by Carmen Baltzar

Documentary ethics is not a topic I wish to speak on with any type of authority. I don’t consider myself an expert in a practical or theoretical sense. I struggle with ethics, to the extent that it led me to a total creative block within the past three years. I analyse past mistakes and wonder if my track record of dropping balls gives me permission to continue making films. There’s something about this profession that makes the discord between your ideal self and real self very evident, and it’s not easy to live with. I often think I should switch to fictional storytelling because maybe I just don’t have what it takes. This is all to say I’m very much a work in progress when it comes to all of this and all I can do is share with you some things I try to consider, as a practitioner, to varying success. 

For now, I’m continuing to work on another documentary film. The subject area is delicate – anti-Roma racist violence in Europe – and I’ve found it difficult to approach. I’m slowly coming out of my block by making peace with difficulty and discomfort. Portraying other people’s lives in my art should feel terrifying. It’s not a feeling I want to get rid of as long as I do this work. 

Below are some ethical themes I keep coming back to in my practice. This is by no means a comprehensive checklist covering all the basics of documentary ethics. Rather than ready-to-use practical tools, they are tools for thinking. The you I write to is both myself and the reader and we refers to an imagined documentary filmmaker community. Please note these are things from my personal notes, not there to tell anyone else what to do – something we all have to figure out for ourselves.


Ethics conversations can feel threatening to filmmakers. We want to hold on to our scarce resources and keep doing our work. As humans we are naturally afraid of information that threatens things that from parts of our identity and livelihood. Out of fear, we may rig the outcomes of the ethical dialogue we partake in. Rigged outcomes can be general such as it’s ok to make documentary films or more specific such as I need to be able to finish this film, shoot this scene, interview person X, or make a film about person X. We consider ethics but arrive at a predetermined conclusion. Ethical consideration is nothing but an exercise in making ourselves feel better.

What would happen if filmmakers were truly open to any conclusion of ethical enquiry? There would be fewer films, sure. But being destructive towards people in the same way the society is already destructive towards them is not very original, so no great artistic losses there. Honesty can help us create more nuanced, more interesting work. 

Happiest Country in the World by Carmen Baltzar


It’s impossible to think about your own actions critically without self-reflectiveness. This sometimes gets lost on us documentarians who like to hide behind ‘it’ not being about ‘us.’ Many of us pride ourselves in not wanting or needing the spotlight, being more comfortable behind the camera and so on, thinking this makes us humble and holy.

While studying documentary filmmaking I was taught to be extremely careful with strong filmmaker presence which can easily become ‘self-indulgent’. While I understand where these warnings come from – the steep rise in documentaries where the director’s presence is not justified by the story, only the director’s hunger for attention – I would argue that we should have been taught to practice as much caution when working with modes where our presence is less detectable and therefore potentially more insidious. Embarrassing ourselves or making boring films is hardly as dangerous as harming other people.

Even if not in front of the camera, we are always there. We think our way of seeing the world is so interesting that it’s worth imposing on other people. There’s nothing humble about this and owning that can help us turn inward when needed. 

If we are blind to our own motivations, we can very easily do harm without meaning to. So, ask yourself why as many times as it takes to get to the truth. Why this story, why this character, and why me. Approach entangling the truth about your inner motives with the same dedication you approach entangling your truth about the story you’re composing and the characters in it.

Self-reflexiveness is a trainable skill. How to practice self-reflection when it doesn’t come naturally? Depends on resources, but thinking, journaling, reading, conversations with friends and colleagues, therapy can all work.

Happiest Country in the World by Carmen Baltzar


Most documentary filmmakers I’ve met are not quick to judge other people. The idea that people are much more complex than just good or bad seems to be widely accepted in the community. We are comfortable in grey areas, it’s where we make our work. In this light it’s surprising that the idea that documentary filmmakers ourselves are generally ‘good people’ who ‘mean well’ gets thrown around quite a lot. To justify our actions with our essence and intentions is simplistic and intellectually lazy – and an efficient way to put a stop to critical conversation.

While it’s important to look at ourselves when striving for ethical practice, when it comes to our impact, it’s more helpful to place our focus on our actions instead of our personhood. When we confuse our actions with character judgments and believe ourselves to be some simple form of ‘good person’, it becomes impossible to receive criticism or be self-reflective. Information that conflicts our inner ‘goodness’ threatens our core. The impulse can be to attack, minimise, dispute deny and/or dismiss the conflicting information to make it go away as fast as possible so we can live with ourselves again. All of this is ok and understandable as a private reaction because it’s not easy being a fallible human, but it shouldn’t act as the basis of our actions and conclusions past that point. Ethical documentary practice is impossible with this much ego in the game.

Creative block

Depending on personality and background, some are more self-reflective and aware than others, and the effect can be stifling. In moments like this I’ve found it’s helpful to take a good look around. Look at work by filmmakers who move with freedom even though the world does their best to make it impossible. Look at work by filmmakers who use their freedom in a way that is harmful to other. Consider whether you want the voice of the latter to drown out yours. 


Ethical documentary filmmaking is impossible without understanding the society and culture you and your characters inhabit. Engaging with appropriate information in appropriate depth is essential. If you are working with marginalised character(s) from a group or groups you are not part of, remember to be critical of sources when you seek information. Some marginalised groups have been largely ignored by research and history writing, and what is out there is produced by outsiders. This doesn’t mean you can’t engage with this information, but it’s your job to understand what position that knowledge has been produced from, and for what purposes. Do not make your characters educate you for free. When portraying character(s) from a marginalised group you are not part of, it’s also part of your job to know the stereotypes associated with them, otherwise there is a real danger you reproduce them out of ignorance.


Where do you, the crew, the production company, and the characters stand when it comes to power? This builds on the previous point because you cannot understand power dynamics without knowledge of hierarchies that we are all part of. This includes understanding the obvious and structural: class, gender, race, ability, and sexual orientation, but also more subtle forms of power at play between humans, which are easier to understand if you understand the basics of human motivation and psychology. We generally long for safety, acceptance, and belonging.

When it comes to basic needs it’s useful to ask if your characters have access to food, shelter, safety, healthcare, etc. Are they motivated to participate because their basic needs are not being met?

Do you have many friends and a vibrant social life while your character(s) suffers from loneliness? Are they saying yes just to have company? What would they choose if they got a choice between you showing the same amount of interest in them with/without the film project?

If you find yourself in a grey area that doesn’t automatically mean your character is not able to make decisions for themselves and you shouldn’t proceed, but at the very least you should be aware and honest about what’s going on and let it inform your process. Approaching consent as an ongoing, negotiable process rather than a yes or no issue helps. There are so many factors at play between people that I find it’s helpful to write them down. Some interpersonal dynamics are subtle and only those involved know about them, so again, honesty is important. 

Since we are working within the structure of capitalism, we also need to consider how money acts in the equation. The truth I learnt in film school delivered with absolute confidence was that documentary film characters cannot and should not ever be paid because of ‘ethics. Later, exceptions, mostly people working ‘on the streets’ were delivered with similar confidence. The issue of payment is complex, and I don’t think any type of cookie cutter advice works. The best way forward I have found is to evaluate on a case-by-case basis. It’s been helpful to do this in conjunction with a wider power analysis of the project I’m working on.

Happiest Country in the World by Carmen Baltzar

Marginality bingo

Marginality bingo is when you pick up a programme leaflet at a documentary film festival or check the programme page of their website and count the number of marginalised identities advertised in it. Some films manage to stuff as many as five into a three-sentence synopsis. I’m aware that structures of capitalism incentivise us to simplify in every step of the process from funding to distribution. I would still like to invite you to consider not participating in marginality bingo with groups you are not part of. This sounds extremely reductive, but that’s the point – so are those programme leaflets, so are many of those films.

When working on a project with character(s) who are part of a marginalised group, try not mentioning it in your logline, pitch, synopsis, or script. Do you still have a story? If you cannot see their story, complexity and humanity behind their marginalisation, could you learn? If you are not interested in learning, it may be appropriate to consider whether it’s the right project for you.    

Documentary film has a lifelong history of portraying marginalised people mostly as representatives of their minority status, oppression, exoticness, otherness. Artistic freedom and all that but it could be artistically interesting to be a little bit more original.


Consider the consequences of your film on your life and career and those of your character(s). It can be helpful to use pen and paper. What do you get out of it, what do they get out of it? Remember to include actual and potential financial gains for both parties. Thinks of worst-case scenarios, best-case scenarios, and everything in between. When you look at what you have jotted down, are you comfortable enough to move on? Do you feel comfortable showing what you wrote to your character(s)? 

Many parts of these consequences are outside our control, but we get to decide how we handle aftercare, how we communicate about our films, and how we treat the opportunities we receive through our films. We shouldn’t ever claim an expert position over the lives of others, and some opportunities can be better directed towards our character(s) if, and only if, they have an interest in them.

Happiest Country in the World by Carmen Baltzar


As filmmakers we may sometimes forget that the workings of authorship and ownership in documentary films may not be clear to the average person. It’s especially important that characters in our films understand how they work in the project they are part of. This involves the obvious: consent and clear communication of when they can withdraw it or parts of it. It also involves communicating clearly about whose hands the video and audio are in the recording and editing stages.

Not too long ago, I met a person who had been the main character of a documentary film that was popular in their home country. They spoke about the film as ‘my film’ – yet they didn’t have any creators’ credits in it. They didn’t have a say on the script, they had no more say on the cut than average, and they weren’t compensated financially. It’s nice they felt involved, heard and respected in the filmmaking process, but I wonder if they’d been given all the information they deserved. Even if they could strongly identify with the result, were they aware it could have turned out differently and that it’s not a filmmakers’ job to portray their characters in favourable light? Co-authorship, on the other hand, means credits and compensation – we all know as artists that ‘visibility’ doesn’t count as payment.

Carmen Baltzar is a writer and filmmaker based between Helsinki and Lisbon.

This article was commissioned by  Dokumenttikilta ry for the Moving People and Images Journal (MPI Journal)