The Ethics of Making

 

Author: Dr Pratāp Rughani
Format: Short Documentary Film and Website
Duration: 26:00
Published: February 2020
https://doi.org/10.37186/swrks/10.2/4


Research Statement

This submission, called Ethics for Making comprises:

– The Short Documentary Film Justine (2013, 26mins, Dir. P. Rughani) now made available on the Screenworks Platform for the first time.

– The Beta launch of Ethics for Making (2019) an interactive website built from student and audience responses to Justine. It lays bare key teaching and learning, practice-based ethical questions and is designed to expand with works in different media and disciplines that tackle questions of practice ethics. It invites user-based evaluation of key choices and their alternatives. It is currently being upgraded for full launch (March 2020)

I was fortunate to receive a BAFTSS Practice Research Award for the documentary film Justine in 2016. This submission makes the film available on the Screenworks Platform now that its impact and reception have been publicly debated and further copyright and ethical clearances agreed. Central to this is the agreement of the family featured in the film to have the work and discussion featured online. This model for consent is iterative and the family have taken part in some public discussion and feature on this platform.

Research Questions
Ethics for Making, a free online tool for students, teachers and makers to explore ethics in creative arts practice was born with the ethical debates surrounding Justine at its heart.

Key questions include:

– How to make a film based on consent, when your subject is not able to give her consent? Should you (or I) even attempt it, as is done in Justine?

– What is the tension between freedom of expression and responsibility to contributors? Should significant material be excluded if contributors prefer this?

The questions unpacked in the interactive tool surface the deeper values that inform it, exposing these dynamics to scrutiny and more transparent evaluation. The ethics of how and why we make the work like that is centrally about bringing awareness to the creative treatment of lived experience and offers reflections to help develop a critical perspective around it by inviting other choices from the viewer. Ethics for Making features ‘co-constructive’ learning tools e.g. poll questions where individuals are asked to make key production decisions that give instant feedback on the percentage of people who made this choice vs others.  The tool aims to help shift from black and white binary ‘ethical’/’unethical’ choices to recognise and invite a consideration of shades of grey which is often the lived experience of ethical enquiry, addressing the whole person in head, heart and social context.

Context
Justine screened on film festival circuits (London Short Film Festival, Sheffield International Documentary Festival, Fastnet etc.) and special discussion-based screenings (Stockholm Centre for Arts; Politics & Poetics of Documentary, USC Visible Evidence; US & UK Human Rights Film Festivals). Panels included production team and participants, critics and activists, and audiences debated the ethics of filming choices. Some of these debates were filmed and feature in Ethics of Making.

Thinking about my production experience in broadcast, activist and artists’ documentary, there are many ways to approach (or avoid) ethical questions. Often we don’t talk about difficult choices that the work may embody. Justine catalysed ethical issues for audiences whose questions can help makers think more fully in advance of production about the kind of work that communities featured in the work would like to see and find valuable. Conversely, productions that do not do this work to understand community contexts are exposed. Here the research process is surfaced and, crucially, the options and paths not taken. With encouragement and the right way to progress, ethics for Making asks makers and audiences the essential questions:

– Why is the work made like that?

– Does it work? In whose interests?

– Who benefits?

– How could it be otherwise?

These are organised in the following themes: consent; responsibility; freedom; collaboration; representation. My experience is that thinking about the ethics for making creative work early on, and long before shooting key scenes, leads to better research design and richer, more creative and challenging work. That path is only a question or two away from conventional ways of doing things, and can answer those questions before they are fully allowed to trouble the makers and subjects of the project.

Some tensions are foundational and inherent in the relationships that configure the production process. The central question of how to handle consent develops differently for some broadcasters (who may seek blanket consent and broader legal rights) compared to models that privilege shared editorial control. What kind of work do we want to make?

My aspiration is that this tool will help makers to do the detailed work of steady questioning and self-questioning that make us better directors; producers; camera people; people to collaborate within creative practice.

Practical explorations of film ethics from and for makers currently working are rare. More often, laying bare filmmakers’ ethics comes either in retrospect at the end of a career or in the forced focus of a legal dispute after shooting. The Ethics for Making tool (and approach) invites us to deepen our practical responses and explore philosophical views by pausing to examine with practitioners the judgements that underpin them. By implication this gives a chance to rethink our approach in planning (anticipating the problematic), shooting (because the experience of filming and the footage gathered will always be different and may throw out new questions) and editing (when the contest for meaning is provisionally resolved). It can therefore be a provocation for different stages of production as makers navigate the production of new work. Ethics for Making integrates filmmaking practice insights rooted in reflections from academic thought. It could therefore be useful to the broader student and critical community enabling us to ask more of the work before us.

Bibliography
Boud, D. (1995) Enhancing Learning through Self-Assessment London: Routledge.

Burke, P & McManus, J ‘Art for a Few’ in Bhagat, D & O’Neill, P (eds.) (2011) Inclusive Practices, Inclusive Pedagogies (https://ukadia.ac.uk/wp-content/uploads/2013/11/Inclusive_Practices_Inclusive_Pedagogies.pdf)

Geva, D. (2019) The Ethics Lab Guidebook. CILECT.

Gilroy, P. (1992) ‘The end of antiracism’ in Donald, J & Rattansi, A (eds)(1992) ‘Race’, Culture and Difference London: Sage.

Lévinas, E (1996) Totality & Infinity Pittsburgh: Duquesne University Press

Pratt, Mary-Louise  (1992) Imperial Eyes: Travel Writing and Transculturation London: Routledge.

Rughani, P ‘The Dance of Documentary Ethics’ in Winston, B. (ed) (2013) The Documentary Film Book, London: British Film Institute

Rughani, P. ‘The Art Of Not Knowing’, in Adams, K & Shaw, P. (eds.) (2012) Anthology: Project Art Works 1997-2012. Hastings: Project Art Works.

Wadham-Smith, N. (2004) Inter-Cultural Dialogue London: British Council.

CREDIT: Dr Pratāp Rughani, Professor of Documentary Practices, LCC, University of the Arts London; Director, Lotus Films.

This project originally developed at www.lotusfilms.co.uk/justine which hosts further assets.


Peer Reviews

All reviews refer to original research statements which have been edited in response to what follows:

Review 1: Accept submission subject to minor revisions of written statement.
This is a highly professional and convincing practice pedagogy submission that deftly marries theoretical discourse, aesthetic sensibility and social awareness. The work asks the reader to watch the 26-minute documentary ‘Justine’ (made by the author), which provides a portrait of the eponymous girl, her crucial social care, and her family’s response to her special needs.

It might be argued that the latter half of the film, featuring a succession of straight-to-camera anecdotal material, sits somewhat uncomfortably with what precedes it – namely a sensitively handled and more observational approach to Justine and her quotidian world. This is not a question of creative scrutiny per se, but to a certain degree muddies the water regarding the wider context of what this submission proposes and seeks to explore, namely the ethics behind such making.

Where consent, and by extension the agency of the ‘subject’, is problematised, the work is strongest in developing an ambiguity around how the earlier images are captured; in combination with direct engagement later they either drift towards didacticism or strip away some of the discourse.

This being said, the film is beautifully and sensitively wrought, with good production values and editing. The accompanying website, encouraging viewers/readers to engage with the ethic quandary connected to this (and other) material, is clear, relevant and highly timeous given the state of ‘austerity’-era social care.

It works equally as a document exploring production itself, meaning-making within the medium, and the implications for wider research and pedagogy. Rughani notes that The Ethics of Making features ‘’poll questions where individuals are asked to make key production decisions that give instant feedback on the percentage of people who made this choice vs others. The tool aims to help shift from black and white binary ‘ethical’/’unethical’ choices to recognise and invite a consideration of shades of grey which is often the lived experience of ethical enquiry[.]”

While this aversion to binary classification as far as ethics is concerned is highly commendable, it might be useful if the statement could say a little more about potential future applications of such a tool, for example how it might influence production-level approaches in the planning, shooting and editing stages of productions. In other words, how might such an approach and its tools, such as the poll – and its broader implications – directly influence the way in which filmmakers choose their subject matter, prepare their shots and approach their making. In other words, is there way to provide both a theoretical and practical bridge between discourse around ethical production and ethical behaviour within that production model? This may be elusive, but it would be helpful if the work were clearer about this.

Review 2: Accept submission for publication with no amendments.
This proposal takes an original and innovative approach to the ethical issues and tensions of creative arts practice. In effect the author forms a proposition that comes from the act of making itself- in this case an interactive tool, that sets out to unpack ‘the deeper values that inform it, exposing these dynamics to scrutiny and more transparent evaluation’.

The design of the tool is also inherently ethical, as it shifts the user from a polarised view of right/wrong to a more nuanced approach coming from the truth of lived experience. This multi-faceted perspective offers up opportunities for diverse criticality.

Rughani’s view of the documentary film format as a subject matter is argued persuasively and this is used well as provocation and as example through the project. The inevitable tensions in a nuanced view of ethics, that right and wrong become relative and slippery concepts, are dealt with in the careful construction and the open and critical debate that the site provides. We are left with what is intended, that becoming aware of the deeper values in a lived experience leads us to a new appreciation of diversity through our interaction with the materials here.

All reviews refer to original research statement which has been edited in response.
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