June 27th, 2009

The Ethics of Urban Documentary

Posted in Canada, Film, Society and Culture, Video by Christopher DeWolf

Vancouver is many things, but perhaps most of all it is Terminal City, a place to which people escape. Movie stars and Cantopop celebrities flee there to escape the stress of their lives in Hollywood and Hong Kong; the less affluent find in Vancouver a place to get away from the constraints and conventions of society. Two films produced by the National Film Board of Canada look at some of the city’s more vulnerable people and their attempts to escape — and they also raise questions about the ethical obligations that documentarians (and, by extension, journalists and other members of the media) must confront when dealing with marginalized people.

Through a Blue Lens, which was created jointly by a professional documentary filmmaker and seven police officers with cameras, explores the devastating effects of drug addiction in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside. Carts of Darkness is filmmaker Murray Siple’s attempt to find himself in the lives of itinerant bottle-pickers who seek respite in the dangerous thrill of racing shopping carts down steep hills.

Through a Blue Lens opens television news-style, with slow-shutter-speed shots of Downtown Eastside streetlife: people selling drugs, smoking crack, shooting heroin and stumbling down the street. It’s a somewhat cliché introduction, but it’s certainly true to the impression that most visitors to the neighbourhood form, whether walking hurriedly through it on the way to Chinatown or passing down Hastings Street in a car, doors locked, windows rolled up. We meet two of the police officers who form the seven-man “Odd Squad,” a team whose goal is to make a documentary film that would illustrate the hardships of life on the Downtown Eastside and serve as a cautionary tale about the dangers of drug use.

One of the first scenes in the movie is a presentation that one of the police officers gives to a class of high school students, sharing with them photos he has taken of the drug addicts he works with downtown. One photo shows a somewhat beleaguered but otherwise healthy-looking 18-year-old girl. He asks if the class thinks she is a drug addict; they reply no. Then he shows them the next photo, of the same girl six months later: her face is hollow and covered with lesions. The film cuts to shocked reactions from the students. It’s a trite and predictable scene, but one that seems inevitable in a documentary with a self-professed pedagogical goal.

That said, Through a Blue Lens is at least aware of its intentions, and it generally stays away from such contrived attempts at shock, choosing instead to let images of hardship and addiction speak for themselves. Through interviews with police officers, scenes of their interactions with their subjects and interviews with those subjects, it avoids becoming anti-drug propaganda by taking a particularly nuanced approach to addiction. In one interview, a police officer speculates that most of the addicts he deals with are particularly prone to addiction; it’s possible, he says, that one could use hard drugs without ruining one’s life. In their interactions with the film’s main characters, it becomes clear that these officers have a close, compassionate relationship with many of the people they encounter on the Downtown Eastside. They are social workers as much as police officers.

But therein lies a problem: even if they are social workers, they are social workers with guns, and they are still power figures dealing with marginalized people. Even though their film was made with consent from its participants, consent does not resolve all ethical dilemmas. In fact, the method of obtaining consent is often stacked in the filmmaker’s favour, especially when the filmmakers are police officers. Through a Blue Lens tries to deal with this problem by involving its subjects in the film’s production: the officers often discuss their goals and approach with their subjects. Even the film’s title seems to indicate that it is well aware of its own potential biases.

Carts of Darkness, though dealing with similarly marginalized people, is an altogether different film. As it takes us across the Burrard Inlet from the Downtown Eastside to the placid suburbia of the North Shore, it approaches its subject matter with considerably more ambivalence and less didacticism. Paralyzed from the waist down by a car accident, former snowboarding filmmaker Murray Siple has made a film about a unique subculture among North Shore bottle collectors and itinerants: racing shopping carts down the area’s steep mountain roads. It begins by following some of its subjects as they collect bottles for refund, earning just enough money to buy them beer and food for the day. Many are homeless, but on the North Shore this means camping in the woods and spending the afternoon gazing out at the sea.

Some of the film’s most memorable scenes, naturally enough, involve cart racing. First is a journey to a series of supermarkets to find the right shopping cart for both bottle-picking and racing. Next are the racing scenes themselves, shot with exuberance from many angles: inside the basket of the cart, near the wheels, from the side, from afar. Ultimately, this is a film about freedom: the desire of the cart racers to free themselves from the shackles of ordinary life and the desire of Siple to relive the thrill he felt as a filmmaker. It is also about the flip side of freedom: many of the cart racers are plagued by alcoholism and troubled pasts, and Siple is of course confined to a wheelchair. The mere act of following his subjects is an ordeal, and we often see him trailing them in a large van that serves as a symbol of his imprisonment.

Siple’s presence guides the film, but it is never overbearing, limited mainly to voiceover musings about his past and present and thoughtful dialogue with his subjects. He says that he feels considerably more comfortable with the cart racing, bottle-collecting subculture than with mainstream society, and he wonders, “How far are they willing to trust me?” In a way, Siple seems to be living vicariously through the lives of the cart racers, which raises the question: is he just using them? Marginalized people tend to be exploited in mass media, including documentary, but what’s worth noting is that Siple, as a disabled person, is himself marginalized. Does this, and the fact that he acknowledges the trust issues inherent in his film, help answer any of the ethical questions Carts of Darkness raises?

“Most audiences believe documentary images to be accurate representations of reality,” writes the anthropologist Jay Ruby. “Should the documentary artist remind the audience of the interpretive and constructed nature of the documentary form – that is, demystify the construction?” Documentary filmmakers have long recognized the constructed nature of the reality they depict, but this is not always reflected in their films. Both Through a Blue Lens and Carts of Darkness attempt to deal with this issue by making the filmmakers’ motives transparent. In the first case, it isn’t entirely successful – since the film deals entirely with police officers and drug addicts with whom they have a close relationship, other perspectives, including those more critical of the police, are neglected.

In Carts of Darkness, meanwhile, Murray Siple ponders the nature of trust in dealing with his subjects. It ends with his attempt to repay them for the openness they have given him: after having filmed and enabled their cart racing, he piles himself into the front of the shopping cart and is raced down a hill, as vulnerable to his social actors as they are to him.


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