Ethics in documentary filmmaking, how far is too far?

April 6, 2021

To film or not to film? To make your subject cry, or to offer a shoulder to cry on. 

How close is close enough, and how close is too close? 

The duty of a documentary filmmaker is to show, how master of reality Werner Herzog likes to call it, the ‘ecstatic truth’: a truth that is not necessarily fact-related, but more so a story that is an intensification of the world as we know it. In search of this truth, the documentarian is on an everlasting quest for the secret stories, the hidden pain that has not yet seen the daylight, or the – often troublesome – characters whose voices are yet to be heard. And mankind is vain. If a documentarian asks you to make a film about your life, you will most likely say yes. We like to believe we are special, that we have a story to tell. 

The responsibility a documentarian then carries to create a spectacle of one’s life is tremendous. How does one exactly create this ecstatic truth, and how does one mold the truth to create the story that we believe is the right one to tell? This is where cinema comes into play. Cinema is a place where realer than real images can be created, where we can film the wishes and nightmares that people have. In a good documentary, human nobility and human evil is exposed at its best. 

I cite: “Some men just want to watch the world burn, and some men just want to come all over it.” Truthful words which could have been mine, but it’s the catchphrase for the new VPRO Dutch documentary series Zaad van Karbaat, or in English, ‘Seeds of Deceit’. Right upon graduating from the Dutch film academy, documentary filmmaker Miriam Guttmann delved into the genetic heritage of Jan Karbaat, a Dutch fertility doctor who, for years, secretly used his own sperm instead of donors. The aftermath of this crime only became evident after his death: over 68 people have now officially come forward as a donor child of Jan Karbaat. The film questions not only the mad intentions of the perverted doctor, but follows the lives of his children, raising questions about nature/nature and family relations. Guttmann successfully recreates the fantasy worlds of the mothers, children and male donors involved. She uses methods that we might recognise as fiction. The series are a play of re-enactments, interviews, found footage, fly-on-the-wall, animation, and visual depictions of sperm everywhere, which some might argue is on the edge of what it means to capture reality. 

The documentary recently premiered at Sundance and has been largely discussed ever since. We are enlightened to have had director Miriam Guttmann at our table today to discuss her new film, documentary ethics, and the thin line between reality and fiction. 

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