“Hula”: A documentary fieldwork experience reflecting the relationship between a filmmaker and its subject
Chow, Yuen Han
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At the core of any documentary filmmaker’s artistic practice is their relationship to, and often with, their subject. The “to” relationship is defined by the filmmaker’s cinematic approach, technical skill, intellectual perspective, and aesthetic judgment. The “with” relationship is defined by the emotional, psychological and sometimes physical effect of the act of filmmaking on both the artist and their subject. In the latter relationship, there are key ethical issues that affect the experiential outcome of the film and its content. While emotional and psychological factors cannot be predetermined, it is important for a filmmaker to be aware of these elements of filmmaking and how they may or may not affect their practice. The central ethical issue for most documentary filmmakers, especially direct cinema is the privacy of the subject. Who has the right to decide how much, to whom, and when disclosures about the subject of the documentary film are made? This issue is often influenced by, if not at odds with, other moral imperatives which are common to all professional filmmakers such as; the commitment to create a film which reflects the filmmaker and subject’s intentions, the filmmaker’s obligations to the subject, the filmmaker’s responsibility to adhere to standards of the profession, fulfilling commitments to one’s support network, and one’s responsibility to the audience. Documentary filmmakers commonly share a “Do no harm” principle toward their subject, however, the lack of any clear guidelines or standards in how one should negotiate these issues is a common frustration for documentary filmmakers. The known and unknown hazards posed by direct cinema suggest the necessity for extreme caution on the part of filmmakers in dealing with potential infringements on the rights of subjects. While assenting to the serious intention of an aesthetic of direct cinema, one can wonder about the dignity, respect, and pride of the people in the films. (Pryluck 199) In other words, when a filmmaker builds a relationship with the subject through the process of developing a film, the former is or at least feels obligated to minimize any deleterious effect on their subject. My interest in making a documentary on an Iraqi woman, Hula, who often faced grave danger as working for the United States, made me keenly aware of these issues. Over the course of a year, my relationship with Hula led me to investigate the broader concept of ethics in relation to professional and artistic practices in film.