Research and film making: ethical questions

The topic for today’s post is linked to the last one, the issue of trace, being remembered, and the politics of personal record keeping. The topic is the ethics of how to construct a documentary film on minorities – in this case the group are people who are minor attracted.

What prompts this post is contact with a film maker who is planning a documentary where the subject of the film is the minor attracted person. All people in her film are asked, have you ever acted on your desires? My belief is, in the context of this film, a question about child porn would be equally problematic. I argue the strategy behind the film maker’s question is deeply flawed and what follows explains why I hold that view.

It is important to note, while this documentary film clearly kicked off a reflection process for me, the topic of film making and the ethical issues that emerge from such projects, goes well beyond one documentary and its maker approaching me for an interview.

It can be argued the methodology of social science research shares the same ethical concerns involved in making a film about any individual or group. How social science research and making a film can be done badly is easy to describe.

Imagine a researcher or a film producer who just wants to make a name for themselves, and take no account of the real life impact of the project on the people who are at the centre of their research or their film. Consider a person who views themselves as part of some specially positioned group or class of person, and that the researcher or film maker feels entitled to comment on others as if their word was divine judgement. Via a sense of entitlement the researcher and film maker claim to speak about people as if only their perspective matters. The negative impact on the very people they focus on seems inevitable. Finally consider a person doing research or making a film on behalf of another group. The interests of the group they work for or seek to serve are really the only determinants to how the research is done or the film is made. We can see how such a methodology and project design would be ethically flawed.

Sadly, in the academic world, as in the world of film and Hollywood, what is all too common is a feckless indifference to the subject being studied or the people at the centre of a project. It is not only an issue of poorly devised method, there is ideology to consider. The guide offered by capitalism lives at the heart of many academic and media/film projects, despite capitalism’s modern claims to render us a service. Recent versions of capitalism claim to be a path to individual emancipation and social betterment. One is offered a new soap to buy at The Body Shop so as to help some poor and distant village better itself; a woman is coached to see the pleasure she takes in the same soap as a deserved outcome of personal strides to be bold and new. The truth all too often is it’s all about selling soap. What is masked is the impact and dominance of a capitalist perspective on a world that could be otherwise.

At the New Zealand National Sociology Conference in 2011 I presented a talk on how social science research focused on minor attracted people needs to consider how the subjects of the study are consulted, invited to be involved in the design, implementation and evaluation of research projects. I argued it is their life that is at the centre of what happens, and I also argued the events that surrounded the controversy of Professor Green’s work and The Cartwright Inquiry in 1987, what became known as ‘the unfortunate experiment’, provides a local New Zealand experiential base for why putting the client or the subject of study first is the way to go.

A documentary about minor attracted persons, I argue, needs to have the same concern for ethics as does a project concerned with the delivery of health care. Linking back to the Professor Green controversy, I argue a concern for socially vulnerable people and groups in our society matters, and this is how I view minor attracted people.

To ask a person, as the the proposed documentary does, to declare the nature of their relationships to children – and it is my belief this extends to the question of viewing or downloading child pornography – leaves open the possibility of legal action against the interviewee. That move would be based on what is said/not said, and how the interviewee responds. Even if the answer simply appears vague or unclear, if they fail to say ‘no, never, ever, not me’, then they are very much at risk.

What you end up with are interviews only with the pure and the safe: those who admit to actions when legal punishment is done and dusted; those who say quite clearly, ‘yes I am minor attracted but no, never, ever, not me’; those who say I am not minor attracted, no, never, ever, not me; and finally those those who lie – because they must, the situation requires it.

I am arguing it is not an ethical move to invite self disclosure in such a documentary given the social position and vulnerability of minor attracted persons.

It is true I am most familiar with the world and situations that define social science research, but the worlds of art and film can be asked to conform to the same ethical guidelines I am arguing for. When a film is made, when any art object is created, the artist works with material and offers it up for others to view. That process is complex and I am influenced by what Roland Barthes writes in his essay The Death of the Author. I recommend reading that essay as a way of unpacking how objects in the world of art and film can be viewed, and how a text can be read.

What explanation might be offered regarding the need to ask the participants in the documentary about sexual contacts with the young.

One explanation could be to talk of trust, trust from the point of view of the audience – they would want to be offered an eye on such an exchange between the film maker and the interviewee. In such a case a minor attracted person interviewed in any film exploring this area would see it as important to ask the hard questions in order for the viewer of the film to assess what that person offers. How the subjects in the film, the people offering a narrative about their life, should be positioned inside the thinking of the person doing the viewing pivots on this process. The film maker sees themselves as merely helping a story unfold. I believe the real structure of what goes on here is something else and that it deserves to be unpacked.

I think the film maker’s approach involves an illusion not dissimilar to therapists who tell themselves the person in the room is their client, when in reality it is a group outside the room who are their real clients. Often this group is the one paying the cost of the therapy. The person in the room is simply being managed so as to meet the expectations and concerns of those real clients. Therapy is assessed and guided by what they want, not what the person in the room sees as important.

The reader may have noticed I do not say the film maker’s concern is for the victims of child sexual abuse. That would involve yet another illusion. In terms of an explanation claiming a concern for a relationship of trust between the film maker and the audience the argument offered posits the idea the viewer just wants to know the answer to a question before they begin to assess who is doing the talking. I argue the illusion operating here involves the idea of the viewer’s openness. As if the viewer has decided to ask a minor attracted person to draft their own narrative, as opposed to consuming the narratives that are already out there – the stories of the predator, the sex abuser, the dangerous liar. In my view, to expect the kind of disclosure being sought is effectively to sabotage the entire project.

If the question regarding sexual contact with the young or a child is not included a film that explores this topic, will the maker of the film be attacked? The accusation would run along these lines: the film has allowed a sex abuser, someone who has had sexual contacts with a youth or child, a platform to speak and potentially be listened to. I have no doubt there will be some who would wish to attack the film maker if the issue of past contact with children were not raised. I also think it can be managed. The anxiety about this point of view is a mistake.

I leave one final question on the table, and I do it respectfully. I perceive the woman who approached me to be in her film as wanting to move things on from a media tabloid rave. I don’t think she would knowingly harm anyone. But I doubt her project has been designed with sufficient ethical rigour. If those interviewed inside the film are asked, have you ever acted on your desire, this question may well be there as a way of protecting the maker of the film from the threat of future prosecution. My question then becomes, Is it ethical for a social science researcher or film maker to put at risk the subjects of the project in order to ensure the safety of its creators?