Is It Okay to Make a Documentary About a Subject Who Doesn’t Want to Be a Documentary Subject?

Finding Vivian Maier Case

IFC Films

At the start of his career, Errol Morris set out to make a film about people from the same town who had cut off their own limbs and reported the amputations as accidental in order to collect insurance money. He received a death threat and eventually recognized that a documentary about these people would involve a lot of doors slamming in his face and camera — in other words, it’d be a failure. So he didn’t make that film (or a fiction version he’d later begun). He made another documentary about other people from that same place — the location being the title, Vernon, Florida – but not one on the subjects who didn’t want to be documentary subjects.

It should seem a given, even without being threatened, that anyone who wants to be left alone or unrevealed should be respected. Yet documentaries are made all the time about reluctant subjects who finally warm up to the idea (usually within the narrative on screen), so filmmakers probably hope that their own project will also wind up accepted by the uninterested person they’re intending to focus on. It happens with amateurs, as seen in Don’t You Forget About Me, in which a young crew film themselves trying to find known recluse John Hughes, and it happens with distinguished pros, like when Alex Gibney made Catching Hell, a film about how media attention helped drive infamous Cubs fan Steve Bartman into hiding — and of course the film only perpetuates that unwanted spotlight.

Those docs were unsuccessful to a degree, as was Resurrect Dead: The Mystery of the Toynbee Tiles, but they exist anyway, and their subjects likely aren’t happy about that. Well, Hughes has since died so he can’t complain, but that shouldn’t matter. Still, a whole other group of films are about deceased subjects who wouldn’t have wanted a documentary made about them, in life or after. In some cases you can only assume that they at least wouldn’t want their diaries read in a movie, as in the case of Doug Block going through his mother’s private thoughts in 51 Birch Street. And in other cases, like the new film Finding Vivian Maier, it’s a constant statement from interviewees who knew the titular nanny/photographer that she would not have been okay with all the attention on her.

There’s a meta scene in Finding Vivian Maier where co-director and Maier discoverer John Maloof even addresses the ethical dilemma of going on with the movie now that he’s heard all those statements. He decides that it’s just too important to give the woman the spotlight, because she’s a significant artist who we need to know about. Only because she’s recently deceased does it seem questionable. The same goes for Block’s film. If the photographs or diary were found or made public a century after the women’s deaths, there would be no issue. They would be more historical effects than personal. Temporal detachment comes about when not only the subject is incapable of protest but when anyone close to or directly familiar with her is far enough gone, as well.

Roger & Me Poster Image

Warner Bros.

More docs are about subjects who don’t want to be subjects than we think. Any time there’s a film made against a company or organization or person where we’re told that they declined to comment, that’s typically the same kind of thing. It only seems different because we might see that subject as a villain or because its point is to uncover and expose something that needs to be revealed. Roger & Me is about a General Motors CEO who continues to avoid Michael Moore‘s attempt at an interview. Before Moore arrived, Nick Broomfield was already making a career out of tackling unwilling subjects, which now include Margaret Thatcher, Sarah Palin and Courtney Love, who has the best reason to not appreciate the one made about her (Kurt & Courtney), as it gives weight to theories that she murdered Kurt Cobain.

Great films about corporate-size subjects who don’t want to be subjects include Harlan County, USA, The Cove, Blackfish, Super Size Me, GasLand and of course, most infamously, Bananas!*, which led to a huge legal battle between the filmmakers and Dole Foods. Even bigger is the nation-sized subject of The Act of Killing (which was co-executive produced by Errol Morris). These kinds of subjects need to be subjects. A filmmaker’s mother does not need to be a subject, nor does Steve Bartman, and arguably nor does Vivian Maier, though her story is so fascinating that it’s hard to dismiss the fact that she’s at least a subject more worthy of her own documentary than most individuals who get one.

More than 30 years after his experience with Vernon, Florida, and the project he’d initially wanted to make, “Nub City,” Errol Morris has made a whole movie on a subject who seems almost completely opposed to being the subject of a documentary. Yet this time that subject is at least a participating one, in spite of any disinterest he has in the project. Donald Rumsfeld sits for a lengthy interview that fills the foundation of The Unknown Known, and while never coming off as explicitly adversarial, nor even defensive, his way of answering to a lot of Morris’s (and the world’s) inquiry is vague, evasive or dismissive, delivering the kind of spin he’s always been known for. For some critics, the result isn’t any better than had Rumsfeld simply slammed the door in Morris’s face. But does that mean the film shouldn’t have been finished? Does it make the film a failure?

We can only really know as much about a person as they’re willing to share, even if accidentally in the case of unwanted things that might come out about them. A film could be made about Rumsfeld that’s more critical without his presence, maybe after he’s dead, likely mostly through secondhand testimony, but that won’t make it any more truthful regarding who he is or was and why he did things as he did (including the mystery of why he participated in The Unknown Known). The real Rumsfeld might not ever be a documentary subject so long as he doesn’t want it to be. The same goes for any resistant individual or corporation.

It’s a different kind of complexity than the subjects of 51 Birch Street and Finding Vivian Maier, both of whom allowed for their secret expressions to be made non-secret by producing them in the first place, or at least not burning them as death came closer. Do people keep diaries without thinking of the possibility of posthumous exposure? Did Maier really hold on to her artwork and other personal items and expect for them to go undiscovered? Did she want them to be found and still somehow remain anonymous anyway? The reasons Maier didn’t want to be famous will never be truly known, and that’s part of the enigmatic pleasure of the film about her.

Finding Vivian Maier is ultimately a film about being about a subject who didn’t want to be the subject of a film, and maybe if we believe that this makes her not the true subject of the documentary, we can attempt to believe it’s more ethically acceptable.

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2 replies to this post
  1. Interesting piece. What exactly did you find unsuccessful about Resurrect Dead? It wasn’t a perfect film, but I found it a very engaging mystery story in which the real characters were the “detectives” searching for answers. The guy behind the tiles is a recluse, true, but he has chosen to express himself in a public (and some would say illegal) way with his intriguing, conspiratorial street art. I felt that in the end the filmmaker (and the detectives) respected his privacy and didn’t even show him on camera (did they? it’s been a while). I suppose we could debate whether it was a good or great doc, but I if you felt they were invasive or disrespectful to the tile artist, I can’t really agree.

    • I like it for the most part, but there’s something awkward at the end about them realizing that this is a private guy and they want to respect his privacy but they’ve made a whole movie about him, and if I remember correctly kinda make it out that others could easily find him now. Still, it’s definitely the one I have the least problem with in regards to this discussion.

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