DOCUMENTARY AND ETHICS
Calvin Pryluck, Spring 1992
Copyright 1992 Calvin Pryluck
First things first. I take it that there really is a world out there,
independent of my consciousness. How to deal with that world out there in
documentary is a question that implicates aesthetics and ethics.
It is a given that some language is propositional, expressing some kind of
fact, idea, mood, attitude, etc. (It is unimportant here to argue whether all
language is propositional.)
"It is 85 degrees Fahrenheit"
"It is 29.4 degrees Celsius"
"It is getting hotter.'
"The weather is hot."
(When in fact one person's "hot" is another's "comfortable")
Film is similarly propositional; it can state propositions in ways that
However, the idea that film must express "author's intention" is far from
obvious. If it is possible to make an assertion, it is possible to test the
veracity of that assertion, i.e., test its truth value; similarly it is
possible to lie with propositional systems. It is possible for a filmmaker to
express someone else's intention, e.g., a pro-choice filmmaker can make a pro-
If it is possible to tell the truth is it possible to lie.
distinctions in considering ethical questions:
between: what you have a right to do?
and what is the right thing to do?
not doing harm
obligations vary by level of responsibility
1. Distinction between morality and ethics.
a> Morality is about how one should behave.
b> Ethics is about how one can decide among equally valid
2. Ethics and aesthetics are both about making choices.
a> Ethics is about choices in relation to others;
b> Aesthetics is about choices in relation to the film.
3. Each class of choice constrains the other;
a> Thus aesthetic decisions have ethical consequences and
b> Ethical decisions have aesthetic consequences.
4. The documentary enterprise includes variety of ethical
5. Paradox of ethical responsibility: ethical choices are between
sometimes (often?) contradictory values and goals.
The following quote reflects an aesthetic as well as an ethical choice. There
is no inherent basis for preferring one choice over the other.
"Some art is better than other art. . . . Art that expresses some personal
opinion or emotion interests me less. To me, the art that is better than
other art is the art that tells the secrets of the community."
John Loring, Tiffany Company design director and sometime painter-printmaker,
"Giving Good Value," New Yorker, August 10, 1992:52
B. WHAT IS FILMMAKER'S RESPONSIBILITY?
2. Actuality, i.e., the world out there that can be recorded on
film or tape.
a> interpretation of actuality:
3> subject's community,
a> Comprehension (understanding of film)
5. Art: Abstract notion of beauty
6. Advance personal viewpoint
7. Self-satisfaction or criteria such as money or advancement
Cal Pryluck, Radio-Television-Film, Temple University, Philadelphia
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