IWMF Spotlight: Deconstructing Documentary Filmmaking

“Radiotopia Presents: Shocking, Heatbreaking, Transformative,” written, hosted and produced by Jess Shane


Documentary filmmaking is an industry worth $11 billion globally. More than ever, the stories of “normal,” non-famous people are in demand – their unique experiences elevated as examples of extraordinary bravery or perseverance. But what do these subjects receive in return, and what happens when their stories no longer feel like their own? And what is the role of the journalist in all of this?

A new podcast, “Radiotopia Presents: Shocking, Heartbreaking,Transformative,” seeks to answer these questions – or at least, complicate our existing answers. During the four-episode mini-series, Canadian documentary filmmaker Jess Shane launches an open casting call for four people to become subjects of short documentaries that she would create about their lives. Through this process, Jess examines the thorny power dynamics that exist between sources and journalists, and challenges the rules that nonfiction storytellers are expected to adhere to (for example, “don’t pay your subjects,” and “don’t let them see your work until it’s published”).

The IWMF is proud to have supported this project with a reporting grant from the Howard G. Buffett Fund for Women Journalists, which allowed Jess to hire sound designer Michelle Macklem for the project. You can listen to the four-episode series on Apple Podcasts and all other major podcast platforms.

We spoke to Jess about the project and the lessons we can learn about ethical nonfiction storytelling.

IWMF: When did you first start to question the traditional models of documentary storytelling?

Jess Shane: I took an untraditional route to journalism and documentary work. I entered the emerging narrative podcasting space after several years working with and learning from Canadian community arts organizations like Jumblies Theatre. As an artist in these contexts, I learned how to weave individual storytelling into broader processes of collaborative, non-linear, and process-based art-making, eventually culminating in polyphonal, collectively-created installations, objects, and performances by and for the community in which the work was created. Leaving community arts for documentary and journalism, I maintained a belief that even without a community-engaged process, there was an inherent value to personal storytelling for subjects.

Yet I soon realized that making work as a radio producer for a media outlet is a completely different beast from being a community artist. Quick turnaround times, the valorization of certain types of subjecthood and ways of telling stories, and the need for accessibility and emotionality often gave me pause. What nuances were systematically being cut out in order to make a palatable media product? Who was this work really for? This sentiment was cemented after my first major documentary project went to air. Its subject, a teenager at the time, was very critical of how my doc represented her life. Though I followed all the journalistic rules I was taught (don’t pay subjects, don’t share any level of editorial control, etc), I wondered if my work had been worth it.

Where did the title “Shocking, Heartbreaking, Transformative” come from?

A reputed documentary film and television producer reached out to me via email asking if I might be interested in being a subject in an upcoming docuseries she was working on for a major streaming network. She had heard an autobiographical radio story I’d produced, and it occurred to her that I’d make a good subject in the show. I found the wording of her question both disturbing and illuminating: she was seeking people “telling their most shocking, heartbreaking, and transformative” personal stories. What could I learn from my own reluctance to be a subject in someone else’s documentary, after nearly a decade of asking others to do the same for me? What did it mean that even this thoughtful producer — someone who has worked on numerous complex and nuanced films — was using tropes of clickbait to solicit participation in her work?

While working with your subjects, you committed to educating them about the process of making documentaries, but you also encouraged them to ask questions and challenge your ideas about how their stories are told. What did you learn from your subjects, and what did you learn about yourself?

I learned so much making this project. I did not understand the full extent to which many subjects do not understand that the documentary projects in which they participate may not be for them or their communities. While consumers of ubiquitous documentary content, they lack the insider knowledge to understand that as participants, they will likely not have editorial control, or if they do, that it will be limited by production constraints. We cannot assume that they understand that projects they contribute to will be unlikely to belong to them, will have a life beyond them, and may have new repercussions for their own lives. I have written elsewhere about how the mythos of storytelling and concurrent rise of austerity contribute to widespread enthusiasm for documentary representation.

Perhaps my biggest takeaway from this project is understanding that true collaboration between makers and subjects is impossible without shared goals, generated together from the outset of a project, and that shared goals are absolutely distinct from mutual benefit. At the same time, shared goals are not a marker of success for many commissioning media outlets, and also require significantly more time and resources.

What can nonfiction storytellers do to mitigate the tensions between subject and maker, while also adhering to journalistic ethics? What changes would you like to see in the industry?

Nonfiction storytellers must acknowledge and account for the mythos around storytelling in our age of social media and documentary-as-popular-entertainment. In the short term, I believe we can re-evaluate the notion that paying subjects is coercive across the board; my project illuminated that it isn’t more coercive than the widespread cultural imagination dictating that telling your story brings emotional catharsis, fame, or social change. Our current booming documentary industry relies on personal stories by ordinary people to bring stakes and concreteness to issues. Particularly for work that veers toward the entertaining or “edutaining,” I believe we should at the very least be paying a standardized rate to subjects for their time.

At the same time, I believe that blanket codes-of-ethics are not helpful; the relationships journalists and documentarians have with their subjects are and have always been messy. As makers and journalists, we must remain committed to naming and challenging the unique power dynamics at play in every project, addressing the hard questions of who and what this work is for with our subjects from the get-go. The Documentary Accountability Working Group offers a useful framework to begin to do this, and some of its ideas are gaining traction within the documentary film establishment. My show offers no answers, but rather was designed to bring the complications of applying any fixed set of ethical rules to light for makers, subjects, and audiences of documentary content alike.

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