Consent in Documentaries

Over the years as a working documentary maker making films for TV, I must have asked thousands of people to take part in filming. I’ve been thinking a lot about this recently – how we gain people’s agreement to be filmed and what they understand about what they are consenting to. Things have changed very radically since I first started asking: “Will you take part?”


Twenty years ago, it was a simple enough concept – “Can we film with you for a BBC/ITV/C4/C5 film which will be on TV in six months?” OK, there may be a repeat showing a year or so later but that’s about it.


Now, contributors are signing up for all eternity, everywhere. The film you agree to take part in today will be available online pretty well forever. The things you say or do will be with you for 10 years or more, even if you later bitterly regret them. I don’t think I’ve made many films in the past 20 years that can’t be found somewhere online. God knows which saddos spend their time uploading ancient documentaries but there’s certainly no shortage of them.


Sure, you can ask the YouTubes of this world to take down the copies but that’s pretty well a full time job – it will soon pop up elsewhere. I spent a lot of time serving take-down notices of Landmark Films’ Strangest Village in Britain. I did this because people were posting up all kinds of snide stuff about the people in the film, who had serious learning disabilities. And because the people who ran the village felt they’d consented to a couple of TV showings of a film they didn’t, in the end, greatly like.


Today, there are seven pirated versions of the film online (see below) – and this is a documentary from 2005! If you’re interested, you can get an idea of one of its stand-out characters, the lovely Barry, in the none-pirated clips down the page at …and yes, that’s another clip online 15 years after filming.

That longevity means the confused and vulnerable 12-year-old in a C4 documentary this week on, say, gender dysphoria will be seeing clips of themselves circulating among their peers’ social media six years later when they start their first jobs or start at college. Will they want that? And how can they foresee what they will want six years ahead? What were the motivations of their parent(s) or guardians when they gave consent – and how do those help or conflict with the interests of the child?


Social media adds another twist. Any particularly dramatic actions or words will be clipped out and circulated within minutes, shorn of any surrounding context. Then they’re around forever in a recycled ghost life as GIFs or memes with hashtags like #AngryMan. I can think of plenty of examples of films where contributors I have filmed are OK with us showing them doing or saying something questionable as long as there’s explanation and context. They certainly wouldn’t be if the single incident was hacked out and circulated ad nauseam but that’s exactly what happens.


At least, when I was asking people for consent to filming, I could get to know them a bit and understand any particular concerns and sensitivities behind their agreement to take part. I’d carry that into a cutting room, knowing I’d have to answer for my editing choices to them on a human level – it was one of the rules at Landmark that the director had to show the film to the contributor. It’s a very good way of keeping us honest. In truth, it didn’t pose us many problems over the years at all and it was always satisfying to see that people felt we had kept our promises and repaid their trust. Strangest Village (the title was Channel 4’s) was an exception: the management of the place didn’t like the film and didn’t like what it showed.


In the television age of the “DV director” and “edit producer”, that relationship of trust no longer applies: the location director sends off the day’s filming and loses control of it. It’s the edit producer’s job to make the best and most dramatic TV from material featuring people they’ve never met and, personally, owe nothing to.


I’m guessing the picture is different for feature doc makers in that it’s easier for them to see a project through and retain authorship. but I think it’s true to say relatively few feature documentaries nowadays rely on present tense filming with non celeb contributors.


As the years of asking for filming consent from people went on, I also became more and more wary about the power balance behind the exchange. I was often making films with people who were disadvantaged, marginalised or vulnerable. I worked with colleagues who were likeable, charming, highly resourced and extremely persuasive. Indeed, that’s why we employed them.


Once filming is underway, we do everything we can to make the lives of our contributors easy. Dog barking? No problem – one of us will take it out for a walk. Kids bored and griping? Don’t worry – one of us will play this whizz-bang video game with them. Lonely and anxious as you wait in hospital? Ta-dah! Here we are with instant comfort and company! One sugar or two with that latte?


I’m sure those of you who work in film-making will recognise the scenario and will have seen how the attention and pampering can be very seductive and not a little addictive. But it’s certainly not helping contributors think clearly about whether it’s really in their nine-year-old’s long-term interest to feature in our film about bullying.

Very many times people would walk into a scene where we were already filming. I suspect some felt obliged to go along with the whole thing even though they might themselves have felt uncomfortable. And countless times we’ve used the camera to sit on the shoulder of authority – following police raiding someone’s house is an obvious example – and sought consent later from a understandably distracted contributor.


Of course, I love documentary and I’ve been lucky to spend most of my working life making films. At its best, documentary is the empathy machine in your lounge – letting you see and understand other people’s realities. Documentaries really can change the world for the better – either through films with an explicitly campaigning aim or, more subtly, through making us more understanding and less judgemental towards others.


I can think of plenty of cases where taking part in a film has been positive for the people in it – even in the cases of some films I’ve really worried about and felt we shouldn’t have filmed at all. In some cases, it’s helped them move on from a traumatic time or event. Or it’s enabled them to feel more widely understood – to “tell their story” and be heard. Or maybe they just had a ball filming and loved seeing themselves on TV – that’s fair enough as well. None of those are the reasons we make the films – that’s to do with making our living through our interest in telling stories on film – but they’re benign by-products.


For years, I had four and a half guiding questions in my mind. Do the people we feature enjoy taking part? Are they pleased with the finished film and do they think it’s fair? Do the audience enjoy watching? Is anyone harmed? And, of course, do we enjoy making the film (that’s the half). Those things gave me peace of mind, though I still shudder about some of the mistakes I’ve made earlier in my career.


I’ll still make films when I can but I don’t think I’ll ever try as hard as I once did to persuade people to take part. I’ll want to know that they understand what they’re getting into and I’ll feel happier if I can see what they’re getting out of it. But the questions I’ve raised here do worry me, some of them increasingly.