Know Your Ethical Guidelines for Documentary Filmmaking

Editor's note: As Black Lives Matter protests unfold in the country around us, a blitz of media has rushed out onto the streets to capture this historic moment. Due to the urgency of the times, it's easy to overlook the nature of this media-- whose perspective it's being told from, what stories are being prioritized, and the tenor of its language. To address these issues, we've invited accomplished New Day filmmaker/educator Daryl Jones to share his thoughts on what it means to be a filmmaker working in a community that is not your own. What questions might you ask yourself and what practices might you adopt in order to check your blindspots and do justice to the community you're documenting?

I first grappled with the issue of insider/outsider filmmaking while studying for UCSC’s Social Documentation program. My thesis project, Tender, is about black trans women living in San Francisco’s Tenderloin. A place often described as “maligned” or “suffering.” News media visit the district when they wish to feature the unhoused or substance users. I originally wished to work with black trans women believing that we have a shared economic, political, and social agenda defined by our blackness and our queerness. I considered myself an insider. Janetta Johnson, head of the Trans Gender-variant Intersex Justice Project (TGIJP), firmly and quickly informed me of the privileges that I hold as a cisgender gay man. The ease with which I walk through the Tenderloin without harassment or fear of violence was evidence enough of this.

Understanding Miss Janetta’s point, I vowed to make Tender from a position that acknowledges my privilege through self-reflection, treating the Tenderloin as a home and I as its guest, and creating ethical guidelines for filmmaking: I would not film the unhoused, drug deals, substance use, or inebriated citizens. Through this practice I saw the Tenderloin differently and produced a film that reflects that intention. What you see in Tender is the Tenderloin as a neighborhood, as home - just as beautiful a part of San Francisco as any other. These intentional filmmaking practices kept me from relying on tropes that feed into negative media reporting. It also prevented me from falling into the trap of gratuity—filming pain and suffering in an empty attempt at pathos. Furthermore, stories about the unhoused and substance use were not stories that my participants were telling. They were not my stories to record. 

I am currently filming The New Roxy Theater, a documentary in Clarksdale, Mississippi about black film spectatorship during segregation through my family’s ties to a movie theater. While that’s the logline, this film is also about Clarksdale and Southern black lives in the present. I am again returning to self-reflection, treating this town like home, and setting limitations on what should and should not be filmed. Violence upon black people is often reiterated on screen in documentaries about segregation. See the prolific use of images by Bill Husdon for example. The New Roxy Theater is counter-violent and does not show violence enacted upon black people. Let me be clear: I do not wish to erase stories of violence from Civil Rights Movement histories. I seek the stories that came after: when family, friends, and neighbors gathered to heal and to love. That is what gave my family, and so many others, the strength to carry on each day. Setting these guidelines is not intended to be an aesthetic challenge. Rather, it is an opportunity to examine where my privilege lies. Checking my privilege helps focus the story. Actively examining my position along with my participants’ changes what I see and what gets my attention. Setting ethical guidelines honors my participants and their community. Just like with Tender, I look forward to the organic, original work this will create. 

Black filmmakers have long called upon connected and established funders and producers to support our work. Today’s political climate demands this with great urgency. Yet, attention must be paid when considering who tells these stories. Filmmakers must first ask themselves: is it your story to tell? The South’s legacy of slavery, Reconstruction, and Jim Crow is a mist that blankets towns like Clarksdale. It is crucial that filmmakers who wish to work with black communities be from those communities. Then filmmakers must look inward and not rush to record the obvious story. Take the time to establish ethical guidelines that not only acknowledge a filmmaker’s privilege, but allow one to show respect and support for the community that is filmed.