I’ve been obsessed with the concept of consent for the past few years. My first film, The Line, and the accompanying blog Where is Your Line?, examine closely the nuances of sexual consent. What does it mean to give or gain consent? What does coerced consent mean vs. enthusiastic consent? How does context influence decisions about sex? What are ethical approaches to asking for consent?
Recently I’ve noticed a lot of interesting crossover between the idea of negotiating consent and the documentary filmmaker’s relationship to her subject. The Line is a personal film; I chose when and how to reveal my story, and wrote the voice over carefully and strategically. I also made the choice to capture footage of someone else in the film with a hidden camera. He did not give consent, but I protected his identity on screen. That was a fraught decision, but the right one for the film and the context.
Now I’m making a film in which I’m not the subject; instead two young people are handing over their trust to me. xoxosms is a 21st century love story, documenting the kind of love that plays out online and blooms on digital media platforms. In this world, distance shrinks and intimacy grows over signals, wires and pathways. Thanks to Skype, AIM, and the internet, months and months of my subjects’ chats are archived… their secrets, their confessions, their stuff.
… and lucky me, I get to read it all!
There’s this idea that “kids today” or to use jargon, tweens, teens and emerging adults, have no boundaries. The stereotype says they share everything with everyone, and naively think the internet is their very own “private” playground. The access-hungry filmmaker in me might at first think Whoopee! They’re gonna give me everything! But knowing that pieces of my subjects’ video, script, text, chats and images will live in a film, online and all over social networks because of my film, gives me pause. Yes, they signed the consent forms, but do they know what that really means? I want them to give me everything, and I want everything to go everywhere, but I want to make sure I don’t hurt anyone.
Before telling a story based on on-line communication, but with the potential to have a powerful influence on my subjects “IRL” I wanted some guidance about how to carry out my role and these evolving relationships during the shoot. Thinking about my young, self-described “introverted” subjects Jiyun and Gus, and all of the intimate details they shared via chat, and would now share on camera, inspired me to revisit the study Best Practices, Honest Truths. This collection of lived experiences from documentary filmmakers working today was collected by the Center for Social Media (the people who brought us the Fair Use principles). It is an excellent, informal set of guidelines on navigating these complicated scenarios.
“What is the nature of my relationship to my subjects,” I had wondered. “Am I a friend, the cool older sister, or the boss?”
The study provided some useful precedent, based on interviews with filmmakers:
[Filmmakers] usually treated this relationship as less than friendship and more than a professional relationship, and often as one in which the subject could make significant demands on the filmmaker. “We want to have a human relationship with our subjects,” said Gordon Quinn, “but there are boundaries that should not be crossed… You always have to be aware of the power that you as a filmmaker have in relationship to your subject.”
On recent shoots for xoxosms, I had an opportunity to balance this power with my desire to respect my subject’s boundaries. Gus expressed that he didn’t want any part of his house on camera in consideration of his family. I could have insisted we needed that particular setting, promising to protect family details in the editing, and really pushed him past where he was comfortable. He’s incredibly accommodating, and probably would have said yes, but he was already revealing personal information that had the potential to disturb his family, so I decided to back off. We chose instead a neutral setting (a motel off route 66). He was relaxed and we could go deeper into the discussion without sneaking around or jeopardizing his relationships.
Another of my questions was “What kind of collaboration is this, how much material do I share with my subjects, and at what stage?”
From the study:
The decision to share material in advance with subjects was, typically, an informal decision. Only one respondent, Jennifer Fox, said that she offered fine cut approval in a legal document, with the caveat that the subjects couldn’t object to the film because they didn’t like the way they looked but could object to things on the grounds of hurting their family.
When I showed Jiyun the production still I wanted to use to represent the film, her initial response was “I look HORRIBLE IN THAT PICTURE. OMGZ. NOZ.” I knew she’d probably hate any photo of her chosen that wasn’t far away or blurry, but giving her a heads up was the right thing to do. I reassured her that she looked great but more importantly; that I was going to use this photo, and it was “out there” online. No stumbling upon, no unpleasant surprises. She trusts that I’m not intentionally trying to make her look bad, or to upset her, and when I asked her recently how she felt she wrote: “hahaha I moved on a while ago : )”
Another filmmaker discusses the finished product:
“I often think, ‘Let me be this person (the subject) watching the film.’ Would they hate me? Or would they think it’s fair? I want to always be able to send the DVD to them.”
Jiyun and Gus are already asking me where else the film will live. In addition to DVD, xoxosms will also have a life on the internet, which we all know means parts of the story can go anywhere. During filming, I made it clear to my subjects that we were there because we believed in their relationship, were taken by their words and wanted to do their love story justice. The same applies to our approach to editing, and every stage of this project.
Maintaining my subjects’ trust is critical – not only because we need continued access to their private lives in order to finish telling their story, but also because I want them to be creative participants in the social media and outreach components of the film. Already they’re active on various blogs and online spaces, so I want to give them the option of being part of the dialogue that may bloom around issues of digital intimacy and love online when the film is complete.
It’s in our mutual interest that my subjects trust the process, that we share the same goals, and that they feel truthfully represented.
Now that I have consent, my guiding mantra when questions of filmmaker subject/trust arise will be: talk about it, and do no harm.