Should documentary film-makers be obliged to intervene?

A highly celebrated and historically significant photograph ‘The vulture and the little girl’, features an emaciated Sudanese toddler being confronted by a vulture. The photo was meant to show a shocking truth, but ended up sparking an ongoing debate about the ethical role of the photographer. Is a photographer simply a recorder of events, or a potential intervenor?

Did the photographer have an obligation, or even a prerogative, to save the child? Was it more productive, more useful in utilitarian terms, to wait for the perfect moment to take the photo, sharing the truth around the globe?

Similar questions arise when it comes to nature documentaries. While the documentary is a medium often associated with a call to action or a specific mission, many nature documentaries take a more educational approach, focusing more on capturing and portraying the truth than espousing any particular agenda.

The issue came up recently when a Planet Earth II episode featured newly hatched turtles becoming confused and heading inland towards the lights of the city, and probable death, rather than towards the light of the moon and the safety of the sea.

On Twitter, the show later confirmed that they had worked with a local organisation to ensure that all of the baby turtles filmed were brought back to the sea. However, on the first episode of Planet Earth (the show’s predecessor), Arctic wolves take down a young caribou and the filmmakers, rather than intervene, caught it on camera.

Perhaps the ethical implications are different when it is not humans, but rather wolves – or one of the many other predators filmed – killing animals in the series. Arguably the risk of an intervention somehow harming the ecosystem by denying food to the wolves changes their obligation.

It is unclear whether Planet Earth is meant to inform or inspire, production team included. After saving turtles, did the crew of Planet Earth leave the lights off at night in their hotels to avoid light pollution?

Films often attempt to tackle such issues. Blackfish, the 2013 documentary based around the harsh reality of whales in captivity at Seaworld, came at the issue with a firm opinion and prompting public debate. Unlike other films where the subject being recorded is something that could be saved, such as an animal being eaten and not rescued, the whale at the centre of the movie was out of the control or influence of the documentarians. In this instance, the documentary is more of a tool for public awareness and less of a conundrum.

Another way to avoid the controversial debate of filming versus intervening is to focus on an existing intervention effort. HBO’s Saving Pelican 895 focuses on the efforts of a coalition of groups to help pelicans who have been hurt by oil in the wake of the BP oil spill.

On one hand, by showing existing efforts, the disaster of the tragedy can be explained – and simultaneously seen in a proactive light – encouraging others to involve themselves in the effort.

On the other hand, rather than showing an actionable issue addressing it, they focused on an existing effort, risking the trap of allowing the audience to feel complacent and satisfied with the solution. Rather than avoiding it, the relationship between our advocacy and our actions is something that we should be grappling with.

The fact that there are questionable components within some documentaries isn’t a reason to stop supporting them or making them, but rather something to be aware of in order to avoid the common mistake of drifting away from the motivation for the film’s very creation.

Image: Luca Galuzzi

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