Filmmaker Jennifer Baichwal – guest curator at this year’s Full Frame Documentary Film Festival – is used to tangling with knotty ethical issues.
Before turning to film, Baichwal studied philosophy and theology at McGill University in Montreal. She has since directed and produced seven feature documentaries, including the 2002 film “The True Meaning of Pictures,” which explores the ethics of representation in documentary photography. Her most recent film, “Watermark” – co-directed with photographer Edward Burtynsky – addresses humankind’s spotty stewardship of water resources around the planet.
All of which makes Baichwal a perfect candidate to assemble this year’s Thematic Program at Full Frame, concerning questions of ethics in documentary filmmaking. Specifically, the program asks how filmmakers grapple with the ethical portrayal of people, places and provocative content in nonfiction films. Featuring titles from filmmakers including Errol Morris (“Gates of Heaven”) and Lauren Greenfield (“The Queen of Versailles”), the Thematic Program spans multiple film screenings, Q&As and panel discussions. For information about events and tickets, see fullframefest.org.
Speaking from her home in Toronto, Baichwal talked about her plans for this year’s festival.
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Q: How did you go about programming the films and topics for this series on ethics in documentary filmmaking?
A: Well, I started off in philosophy and theology at university, before I even became a filmmaker. I decided to make films because those questions that preoccupied me in school, I wanted to explore them in a more accessible medium. From the very beginning, when I started as a documentarian, I realized that ethics around the politics of representation were at the forefront of every aspect of documentary filmmaking – where you choose to point the lens, what you choose to film, how you choose to edit the material and present it.
Without having your ethical position in mind all the time when you’re working, you can stray into really dangerous territory in terms of exploitation of subject.
Q: There is often a misconception in popular culture, I think, that documentary films are supposed to be somehow “objective” – like hard news or scientific scholarship.
A: I do agree that the idea of objectivity is troublesome. Believe me, even so-called hard news is coming from a particular perspective ... but it’s being presented as objective truth. As we become more media-literate, we can unpack those biases. You can see it when two different newspapers – a right-leaning paper and a left-leaning paper – are reporting on the same news. They will each have a very different perspective on a particular subject.
In documentary film, I don’t think that being ethical means driving for objectivity, because I think that’s impossible. But I do think that truth is possible in documentary film. It’s the kind of truth that comes from an authentic and respectful relationship with the subject. It’s different in every situation, I think.
The films that we chose for the program are very much films that raise these questions. What story am I being told? What is the tension between representation and respect of subject?
Q: One of the films in the program, “The Queen of Versailles,” generated some controversy over allegations that some scenes were rather extensively staged for effect. Is that an aspect of the ethical issues you’re exploring in the program?
A: Well, that’s an intriguing question. Documentary filmmakers each have a very personalized idea about how far it is possible to stage something. I’m kind of a purist in that respect. I find it difficult even moving things around in a shot so that they look better in a particular context. I feel like I’m interfering with things. I don’t like asking people to repeat things in interviews, to say it a different way or to say it better. I realize that’s kind of an extreme perspective.
I never go into situations with a script or an idea of exactly what I want. Hence, we have very high shooting ratios in our films – like 180 to 1. I like to find the story in the editing room.
One of the reasons that I chose “The Queen of Versailles” is that, as viewers, we’re in this slightly uncomfortable position. There’s something entertaining about it. There’s something slightly voyeuristic about it. You feel like you’re getting a window into this crazy world that you would never be part of. But at the same time, you’re asking yourself – what is the agreement that they had about this filming?
Q: So these are the kinds of questions you hope to dig into with the panels and Q&As?
A: Right, that’s the whole point and why I’m so excited about doing this. The idea is that we get to have these discussions afterward. I’m not saying that my view is right. It’s just my view as a filmmaker. I’d like to hear a really good argument for another way. There will be lots of opportunity for discussion.
Q: Have you attended Full Frame previously?
A: I haven’t, actually, and I think that almost all of our films have played at Full Frame. It’s just the timing. I have two kids, and Full Frame is always right around spring break and Easter time, when the kids are off and we have family obligations.
I’ve always wanted to go. It’s very intelligently curated. There are not many festivals like that. It has a prestigious reputation because of that – because of its love of the documentary form. I was honored to be asked and I’m very glad to be coming.