Ethics and the Documentary Filmmaker

African Hunting Holiday (2008), Saving Rhino Phila (2012) and HORN (2014)


by Reina-Marie Loader



This article addresses some of the ethical considerations affecting the documentary filmmaker dealing with issues of conservation. It specifically approaches this dimension of production from the perspective of the practice-as-research filmmaker. This perspective straddles a line between two worlds, but is confronted with exactly the same ethical questions as the perspective of documentary filmmakers generally. In this context the relationship filmmaker-participant involves a vital dimension of ethics. This article examines the issue by means of a closer analysis of two films addressing conservation in South Africa, which leads to an evaluation of the ethical importance of realising that such issues do not exist in a vacuum. On the contrary, they are part of a broad socio-political network that not only impacts on wildlife conservation, but also on the conservation of human life. In this light, the article argues that documentary filmmaking itself should not exist in a vacuum by solely focusing on the immediate problem. It should also critically dissect the socio-political context from which the problem grows as well as in which the film is produced. These arguments are illustrated by considering them in relation to the production development of a practice-as-research project entitled HORN – a film about rhino poaching in South Africa. By means of this example, the article aims to draw attention to how documentary filmmaking is part of a continuum of responses that shifts and changes throughout time. What then stands to reason, is that an ethical approach to filmmaking should actively and stylistically acknowledge the fact that documentaries are part of living moments. In effect, they are part of reality.


In 2009, the Centre of Social Media at the American University in Washington D.C. conducted a baseline study in order to determine some of the ethical challenges facing contemporary documentary filmmakers. The motivation behind this study was the fact that ‘ethical standards specific to documentary’ have not yet been articulated in any concrete fashion. By calling for a ‘more public and ongoing conversation about ethical problems in documentary filmmaking’, the centre’s report broadly highlights three main areas of concern, notably:

  1. The economic climate putting significant pressure on filmmakers to deliver more content for less money.
  2. A tension between the filmmaker’s responsibility to the subjects/participants and the viewers.
  3. The absence of a clear and standardised ethical code of practice.

Additionally, the report specifically refers to the fact that documentary filmmakers (as opposed to journalists) see themselves as creative storytellers ‘who tell important truths in a world where the truths they want to tell are often ignored or hidden’. The conclusions emphasised by the study also point to the fact that documentary filmmakers themselves are often defenceless during the making of a film as a result of contractual restrictions and the impact of influential participants:

[Filmmakers] themselves are vulnerable in a wider media system. They constantly face resource constraints and often are trying to behave conscientiously within a ruthless bottom-line business environment. They sometimes deal with hostile gatekeepers or powerful celebrity subjects. Indeed, any subject’s withdrawal of affection may result in denial of access to material in which the filmmakers have invested heavily. [1]

It is this dimension of the filmmaker’s vulnerability that I would like to discuss further, since it seems to have been largely overlooked – even in the area of documentary ethics that is itself not nearly theorised and discussed as thoroughly as it should be. I will do so from the perspective of a practice-as-research filmmaker having just completed a film about the highly controversial and emotive issue of rhino poaching in South Africa.

For a filmmaker and researcher interested in new modes of representation, exploring documentary as a form is an exciting but difficult field to navigate. One could argue that it is now much easier to use the filmmaking process as a framework for research methodologies. The digital revolution has made the required technology readily available as well as affordable. During the last two decades, research through practice has also gained wider recognition as a legitimate method of research in the academic environment. However, the fact of the matter remains: a practical film researcher straddles a line between two vastly different worlds. On the one hand, we are committed to research, to the production of knowledge and the authentication of film as a medium with intellectual integrity and social significance. On the other hand, we also operate in a world driven by industry, production of goods, mass entertainment and scepticism of the impact film can have on societies and authentic understanding. Not to mention that a practical research project can be significantly more expensive than a conventional research approach to film academia, while funding still remains very limited for practical projects. As a result, practical work often needs to seek funding within the film industry where a form of filmmaking that is built on an empirical research identity receives little or no support (see also this post on PAR research).

Consequently, the academically driven documentary filmmaker becomes isolated within both the academic and filmmaking communities since the systems within which he/she makes films generally do not provide the necessary support. Moreover, the mere fact that I identify myself as well as my practice with documentary approaches, has resulted in my coming face-to-face with exactly the same ethical conundrums highlighted by the study referred to above. In this regard, economic constraints and subject participation are two major aspects. Firstly, within the financial pecking order, the practical researcher in both documentary and narrative filmmaking is situated one step below the independent filmmaker – struggling to be heard in both academia and the industry. This in turn has an effect on the type of participants the filmmaker manages to get access to. Without the support from a widely known and respected institution such as the BBC, it is difficult to see how Louis Theroux for example would have been given access to the kind of personalities he has been able to interview for his various television series. In fact, Theroux seems like one of the few documentary filmmakers working today who is not only able to retain but also to broadcast scenes in which it is evident that the relationship between filmmaker and participant is near collapsing.

As an illustration of the significant impact personas can have on the ethical perception of the filmmaker-participant dynamic, I want to briefly turn to an example from one of Theroux’s films entitled ‘African Hunting Holiday’ (Louis Theroux: The Strange & The Dangerous, BBC, 2008). I choose this example also because of its significance for my own investigation into the issue of rhino poaching. The hunting of rhino for profit has become one of the many issues that are completely entangled in the debates about South Africa’s ideologically driven views on wildlife conservation. ‘African Hunting Holiday’ particularly focuses on the ethics of hunting for entertainment.

Figure 1: ‘African Hunting Holiday’ (Louis Theroux: The Strange & The Dangerous, BBC, 2008)

Figure 2: ‘African Hunting Holiday’ (Louis Theroux: The Strange & The Dangerous, BBC, 2008)

In his documentary, Theroux managed to obtain access to one of the most powerful and controversial figures in South Africa regarding the conservation and hunting of big game. Piet Warren has made a great deal of money by breeding game in captivity for the sole purpose of being hunted by holidaymakers mostly from Vietnam, Spain and the United States – Vietnam of course being one of the main countries seeking rhino horn for recreational or medicinal purposes. He has been specifically criticized for breeding species such as rhino and caged lion, though he has also been credited for a positive contribution to sable antelope conservation. In the film’s most awkward, yet most revealing scene, Theroux asks Warren whether it is not ethically questionable to breed these animals solely to be shot and killed for trophies – a question he has been asking relentlessly throughout the documentary. At this point, Warren loses his temper and tells Theroux:

I don’t think this thing is going to come off well […] You have asked me that ten, fifteen times […] You have asked me: Just to be killed? Do you think that is right? Do you think that is wrong? You have asked me that fifteen times when I have told you fifteen, sixteen times that is what we are up to! That is why I agreed to do this thing. Is for you to see the other side.

Here we are given an unusual insight into the documentary process in that Warren reveals that he has been negotiating with the production team regarding the parameters according to which he will consent to participation. What is more, he indirectly reveals to the viewer that he has a clear agenda in giving Theroux and the BBC access to his land and life. However, he also reveals a desire to control the ideological argument of the film. An attempt of a ‘powerful celebrity’ to control the film is of course a real danger for the documentary filmmaker – one which Theroux fortunately manages not to fall victim to, though his conduct towards Warren clearly shifts immediately after this moment. During this scene, the cameraman does not stop recording, causing Warren to cover the camera with his hand as he continues talking (Fig. 1-2). Despite this deliberately suggestive action, Warren never once tells the cameraman to stop filming. In effect, Theroux has pushed Warren to the limit of his patience by asking him the most basic of questions – the question most are likely to ponder when confronted with the moral ambiguity of hunting in South Africa. Some may argue that Theroux’s approach here enters an ethical grey area in that the deliberate incitement of a willing participant to the extent that he loses his temper may not be perceived as the best code of documentary practice. Theroux repeatedly uses this technique, most notably in another film about South Africa in which he follows white separatists and Eugène Terre’Blanche – one of South Africa’s most notorious extremist leaders during the Apartheid regime (‘South Africa’, Louis Theroux’s Weird Weekends, 2000). However, as the study by Centre for Social Media points out, many filmmakers do not find entering this ethically uncertain area problematic if the subject they are interviewing attempts to exercise a degree of control and power over the integrity of the film. In this instance, the obligation of the filmmaker shifts from the participant to the viewer:

Filmmakers also recognized limits to the obligation to the subject. One diagnostic was whether the filmmaker found the subject ethically lacking, for instance, because of politically or economically corrupt acts. Steven Ascher said that ‘revealing a subject’s weaknesses or positions that the audience is likely to find laughable or repellent can be justified when they are taking advantage of other people or when they are so completely convinced of their own rightness, they would be happy with their portrayal. You don’t owe them more than that’. [2]

Warren is clearly completely convinced of his stance and is likely to stand by what he has said – which is probably the reason why this scene was able to stay in the film. Moreover, what Theroux manages to achieve in this instance, is highly significant. He was finally able to shift his investigation towards the core of the issue – one that Warren has obviously been avoiding until this point. More importantly however, Theroux manages to not only highlight Warren’s attitude to conservation as an individual, but he also manages to uncover an overarching and contemporary South African condition. This condition struggles to find an ethically sound approach to conservation due to the country’s history, economic standing and social and cultural conditions. Warren emotionally, almost exasperatedly, attempts to express his stance while gesturing towards his breeding facility, which houses the rare sable antelope:

This would have been waste! […] the trees would have been chopped and made firewood of. Now all their sisters [pointing at sable antelope] are being bred. We are creating better and better sables. We are creating better and better rhinos. We have a rhino bull now of three and a half years. He has a twenty-two inch horn. It is unbelievable. Because we are being paid per inch. Understand that. It is a different perspective. Africa does not have computers and people who are disciplined, who give it a chance. It is f…! Because we chop down everything and we eat everything. And this is a way to make money out of what there is here … Okay? […] Stop asking the same question! [pause] I hate f… elephants because they kill every good-looking tree. They don’t eat the sh… bush. They kill those big ones. They just debark them. Now we can’t get a permit to destroy or remove these elephants because the public, the world’s public thinks we are koekoes [i.e. crazy], because of that question you ask me: Doesn’t it hurt you to hunt it? It doesn’t hurt me. I grew up in another culture [… Sables] are going to go extinct if they don’t bring in any money. They are going to go top extinct. What have I done with all the money I have made out of sables? … Bought other sables, created the natural environment where they used to live. I am telling you, if it is not for hunting there will be no species left in Africa.

Warren points to the economic placement of South Africa as a country that relies on its wildlife to survive in the global market place. Additionally, he reveals that despite this fact there is no centralised attitude towards conservation causing over-habitation and over-consumption of its natural resources. What he does not mention however is that the reason why ‘we chop down everything and we eat everything’ has totally different roots than conservation. It has to do with people still living in poverty, thereby driving people to the poaching of small game and plants for firewood. It is not because people are not ‘disciplined’ or do not want to give Africa ‘a chance’. It is because many do not have any other choice. Moreover, at its core this problem has nothing to do with economic survival on the global market. It has much more to do with people’s attempt to survive themselves on a local and day-to-day basis … to preserve their own lives and the lives of their children. This is a very difficult area to address, but highly relevant for the conservation of South Africa’s wildlife.

The rise in poverty and unemployment cannot have a positive impact on the environment and conservation. On the contrary, it leads to resentment between cultural groups – a fact that is evident from Warren’s outburst. Unlike the way in which conservation has developed in the United Kingdom for example, with respected institutions such as the National Trust, conservation in South Africa is not yet seen as a matter of national heritage. It is rather seen as one of the few tools for making money. Moreover, Warren also highlights some of the racial tensions that are prevalent whenever the issue of conservation is debated within South Africa. ‘Legitimate’ hunting is predominantly a white person’s sport. Warren’s ethically dubious statement suggests his role as participant to be completely determined by an ideology driven by cultural tensions.

Firstly, it points to a tension between the differing cultures of the foreign filmmaker and the local participant. Secondly, it also reveals a tension between cultures within the country itself. The latter is particularly apparent in that Warren’s argument suggests that if it were not for white people, black communities would destroy the bush and its animals for firewood and food. This is of course a deeply problematic point to insinuate, but points toward a very real tension that still permeates South African culture – especially since South Africa’s post-Apartheid economic and social position has not improved the standard of living for the vast majority of its citizens. This highly complicated struggle is at the centre of many of South Africa’s problems, including the subject of my own practical research, namely the issue of rhino poaching.

As Warren’s statement above begins to illustrate, it is not so easy to discuss the conservation of wildlife without addressing many of the failings in contemporary South African society. A filmmaker’s ethical approach to a subject is thus immediately complicated by the inherent complexity not only of the topic itself, but also of the social environment from which it grows. Specifically debating the issue of rhino poaching for instance reveals a complex network of socio-political and cultural failings that are not only driven by economic reasoning, but also by international relations and social inequality. Given this sheer complexity, poaching has always been a very difficult subject to broach in film. It involves matters such as trade, hunting, class, race, poverty, murder, law, human rights, animal abuse, education, unemployment, the ownership of land, international relations, foreign investments – the list goes on. What is more, as an industry, the illegal poaching and trading of animals such as rhino, elephant and tigers is internationally the third most lucrative form of illegal trading after human and drug trafficking. A single rhino horn can for example sell for up to £40,000 per kilogram on the black market, making it more valuable than gold. It is therefore to be assumed that such a lucrative industry will not only lead to the loss of animal life, but it will also lead to the loss of human life.

In January 2013, the country was however once again divided on this issue when the National Press Club declared the rhino to be the national newsmaker of 2012. This resulted in an outcry against the idea that an animal can be more valuable than human life. Given the sheer scale of important events that occurred in South Africa during 2012, one can understand that the Club’s decision could be seen as influenced by the wrong motives. The same year saw thirty-four miners shot and killed by police in Marikana. Underprivileged school children in the Limpopo region were denied important textbooks due to managerial negligence. The highly controversial and radical ANC Youth League leader was expelled from the party, while the country’s president, Jacob Zuma, was repeatedly criticised for his extravagant abuse of governmental funds for his own home Nkandla. The extent of human suffering in the face of these events can surely not be less important than the death of animals. All of these issues therefore make it rather difficult to comprehend that an animal can take centre stage in this way. However, if one were to disregard for a moment that the rhino is a wild animal and attempt to see its significance within South Africa’s socio-political context, one may begin to see that the issue of rhino poaching is far more than a conservation issue. It is an issue with socio-political significance that deeply impacts on human life and South African independence. On closer inspection, the poaching of rhino is revealed only to be a symptom of the greater cancer growing in South Africa, since it is born out of a systematic breakdown of social, political, cultural and economic structures which again begins to divide people in terms of class, race and political alliances. The poaching of rhino is thus only indicative of how the South African people are being used for financial and political gain. Addressing rhino poaching in its socio-political context therefore may begin to solve the issues causing the controversy in a way that could positively impact on the development of the country.

A film dealing with the issue of conserving the rhino for future generations therefore does not only have to do with the ethics between the filmmaker and the participant, but it has a great deal to do with the ethics of conservation itself. In this light, given this complex socio-political climate within which rhino poaching exists, how is an independent filmmaker and researcher to navigate through this maze of complexities in an ethical way that not only respects the views of the participants involved, but also protects the filmmaker from being misled and used for other agendas? In the next section of this article, I will begin to suggest why this dimension of ethics is important to address more systematically within documentary discourse. Moreover, I will also consider the responsibility of a filmmaker not to over-simplify a situation purely for narrative clarity. A new approach to documentary may perhaps allow one to highlight the ebb and flow of socio-political problems that impact on many sectors of social and cultural life.

Rhino poaching has been a very popular topic in the media since the surge in poaching became glaringly obvious in 2011. Numerous television programmes, films and news reports have recently been developed in the effort to raise awareness about what is happening to the South African rhino. Some programme makers have used a documentary structure to present the issue in an objective fashion, thereby highlighting what horrors are inflicted on rhinos. Other films have adopted an action format for similar reasons – that is, to illustrate the damage done to targeted animals. In 2011, Richard Slater-Jones directed a documentary entitled Saving Rhino Phila, a film about a black rhino that survived two attacks by poachers. During the first attack, Phila was seriously wounded by a series of bullets and one of her horns was cut off. She was subsequently taken to a rehabilitation facility, where she was again attacked for her smaller remaining horn. Again she survived after having been shot eight times in total. Phila is now in the Johannesburg Zoo where she is healing well both physically and otherwise.

The film deeply relies on an overtly sentimental account of the events using music and narrative structures to create suspense and affective responses. Apart from using narrative reconstructions and easily recognisable actors like David James from District 9 fame, the film also relies heavily on interviewees expressing their sadness, disgust and horror at what was done to Phila. On more than one occasion the film shows interviewees crying into the camera. The director himself stated in an interview that,

[w]hat we would like to achieve with this film is an absorbing, emotional, but above all, entertaining hour of television, that cuts through all the crap out there on hundreds of channels. Importantly, we want to reach the audience that doesn’t give a damn about rhinos, or doesn’t really go out of their way to watch wildlife or conservation films. An immersive cinematic experience is what will draw this audience into Phila’s story. We are not preaching to the converted, nor are we trying to solve the rhino poaching problem here – we just want to create a global awareness of the problem and its surprising complexities. [3]

After the film was awarded the prestigious Panda Award for best film at the Widescreen Film Festival in Bristol (UK), the film’s producer, Oloff Bergh, echoed this view:

As a team of passionate wildlife filmmakers and conservationists, we were desperate to bring the world’s attention to the mass slaughter of South Africa’s rhinos. But, we had to create a concept which would appeal to international audiences. Just another news piece about ‘the war on rhinos’ was not going to have an impact. Phila’s tragic ordeal presented the ideal opportunity to tell one rhino’s story in a personalized yet compelling and informative way. Winning the Panda award for Saving Rhino Phila not only gives deserved recognition to the highly talented, committed and passionate team that produced the film – but it accentuates the original objective of drawing the world’s attention to the plight of rhinos in South Africa. [4]

In addition to deliberately pulling at the heartstrings of its viewers for what Slater-Jones sees as ‘entertaining’, the film is however specifically calling for the legalisation of horn trading. Slater-Jones himself says that a potential solution to the problem is legalising trade ‘and to send out a message that it’s ok to farm rhinos’. He continues by arguing that ‘I know that farming rhinos goes against the emotions and sensibilities of those who want the animals to stay wild and with their horns. But as we show in the movie these organised crime (syndicates) and millionaire poachers are armed to the teeth with automatic weapons and use helicopters at night.’ [5] Given the director’s overtly pro-trade position, it is not surprising therefore that one of South Africa’s best known members of the pro-trade lobby, Pelham Jones, was a participant in the film. The controversy associated with the film is however not merely limited to its connection to the highly sensitive legalisation debate. What became even more prominent was the discovery that several of its participants were actually linked to illegal trading. Unbeknown to the filmmakers at the time, a vet in the film was later allegedly charged with rhino poaching issues, while another interviewee has since admitted to selling rhinos to South Africa’s most notorious syndicate leader, Dawie Groenewald. Numerous questions with regard to the reasons for and effects of the transaction still remain unanswered. [6] As if this in itself is not enough, it was also discovered in 2012 that a helicopter owned by Groenewald was used in the film to recreate the events of Phila’s attacks. The owner of the helicopter was identified by the registration number on the tail of the helicopter used in the film (Fig. 3). The irony of this was not lost on anybody.

Figure 3: Independent investigations revealed the link to Dawie Groenewald.

Subsequently many called for a boycott of the film, resulting in a partial reshoot and re-edit of the affected sequences. The film’s commissioning body, The Natural History Unit for Africa (NHU Africa) also issued a statement on their Facebook page. They wrote the following:

The helicopter used in the latest version of Saving Rhino Phila does not belong to Dawie Groenewald. In February [2012] it was brought to our attention that a helicopter belonging to Groenewald had inadvertently been hired by the production company we commissioned in the filming of Saving Rhino Phila. As soon as we found out about this we pulled the film from all festivals and outlets.

Subsequently we have gone to great lengths to completely reshoot all parts of the film that featured Groenewald’s helicopter. Therefore the film is now free of any association to Groenewald […] The public will now get to enjoy a film that strongly promotes rhino conservation in South Africa. Please feel free to contact us for further info and share this information, as we are proud of the solution and the film in general. [7]

The reason why I describe the controversial history of this film in such detail is that it represents a serious and real dilemma facing the documentary filmmaker who deals with such agenda laden topics. When I started researching the subject for my own film entitled HORN, my intension was to make a so-called ‘pure’ or ‘sober’ documentary using conventional codes and techniques associated with the documentary mode. I wanted to investigate the complexity of the situation in order to come closer to a solution-driven filmic perspective on one of the most controversial topics in contemporary South Africa. This intention is expressed in the very first description of the project:

Initial Project Description: The film HORN  intends to investigate the reasons behind poaching by focusing on the social and political dimension of the problem and the rise of organised, ruthless crime syndicates. The intention is to not only raise awareness and educate, but also to reflect on the socio-economic reasons behind poaching in order to draw closer to an understanding as to why this is happening in the first place.

This original focus thus included the following central question: Why do people get involved in poaching? However, as this summary in itself already reflects, the more my research discovered how deeply the rhino issue is ingrained in personal, political and economic agendas across numerous social sectors, the more difficult I found it to conventionally deal with a topic in a way that reflects my own ethical conviction as a filmmaker. The project description was subsequently revised so as to incorporate a clearer awareness of the complexity of the issues raised in the first description:

Revised Project Description: HORN is a lived documentary that creatively investigates the issue of rhino poaching by focusing on specific anti-poaching units in South Africa’s Waterberg region. The intention is to determine how effective anti-poaching as a solution-driven method is to combat the surge in organised poaching. A key dimension is the assessment of anti-poaching training as a forward-looking strategy that serves the protection of not only rhinos, but also the wider community. This includes an evaluation of the physical and psychological impact of such training by following an actor playing a specifically created character within a real-life training situation. The intention is to thereby explore sustainable solutions to this dilemma while simultaneously commenting on the wider socio-political context connected to the survival of the South African rhinos (for the final project description see this link).

However, what complicates making a film on this topic even more, is that almost everything about rhino poaching as a current historical event is uncertain: the significant events that will ultimately determine the rhinos’ fate, the key players, the primary locations, the indisputable facts and figures. Many untruths are still seen as the truth, while accepted truths might yet be revealed as deliberate fabrications. Taking Slater-Jones’s film as an example, one cannot argue that the damage done to Phila due to poaching is accurate. However, what Slater-Jones had no control over was the integrity of some of his participants, since their histories and motives were and to an extent still are unknown. They are still active players at this particular historical moment. Whatever one might think of the film’s argument and style, Slater-Jones had to trust – even blindly trust – his participants, just as much as the participants had to trust him. Documentary films that look at a current event thus leave those involved exposed and vulnerable.

The more one gets involved in what rhino poaching entails, the more one becomes aware of all the uncertainties contained in the arguments associated with it. Who and what should one then trust? Brian Winston’s argument that journalist and documentary filmmakers are significantly constrained by the complexity of the situation they are documenting is therefore highly pertinent to my situation. Kate Nash points out that Winston’s argument ‘is founded on an empirical claim about the conditions in which documentary makers do in fact work’ thereby taking a situationist approach calling for ‘attention to the realities of documentary production’. Nash further notes that despite the fact that ‘a commitment to situationism could be seen as an attempt on the part of documentary makers to exempt themselves from external sanction, it is nevertheless significant that any ethic of documentary be grounded in an understanding of the realities of production context(s)’ (Nash, 2012: 320-321). [8] Similarly, Michael Renov quotes Emmanuel Levinas in saying that ‘problems of knowledge and truth must … be put in relation to the event of meeting and dialogue’ (Renov, 2004: 147). [9] While I agree with all of these opinions and the importance of production context, they are concerned with the judgment of a film’s ethics upon reception by others. What I am trying to work through critically, ethically and practically, is what responsibility filmmakers themselves have to develop for such contexts prior to production. But more importantly, is it possible to do this within current documentary filmmaking conventions? What method should a filmmaker employ in order to contribute positively to historical dialogue rather than add to feelings of distrust already overshadowing controversial topics?

In this regard, Renov views ethical documentaries as a platform to engage in dialogue as opposed to ‘aggressive, pulverizing discourse’. Renov notably states that ethical documentaries

‘require an active, but receptive engagement with their participant other. The actions of the other are interpreted by the system along a continuum of response, sensitively calibrated and reversible at every moment.’ (Renov, 2004: 147) [10]

In this light, I have sought to develop a way to literally see HORN as a continuum of responses, not only sensitive to the situation, but also subjective in that it reflects my own engagement with the events. While sensitive to the views of the audience and participants, the film remains a reflection of my own interpretation, since I too am ‘a participant other’. I am someone coming into the situation, interpreting it and presenting my own critical argument through narrative structures. Consequently, I do not have to rely on other people’s experiences and thoughts on the matter, like in the case of Saving Rhino Phila. I am rather interested in developing a narrative situated or living within the real event, yet detached from the various agendas that govern it. With HORN I thus attempted to make a film about a moment in history that is not yet over, and therefore my own view can legitimately hold documentary value. Even if thematising my own thoughts may ultimately be shown to be wrong or misinformed, they still remain ethical in that they are based on my own opinion, which can be developed, changed or even reversed at any point. I cannot reverse, adjust or tweak the statements of others, but I can amend my own interpretation of an event while using those statements as well. I can do this since what I am seeking to document is a point in history as it is happening, but I am significantly also documenting a time in history as it is developing.

A possible avenue one could take in order to actively live the historical moment on screen could be to borrow elements from docudramatic filmmaking, reality television and the fast growing world of online transmedia narratives. How one would bring these elements together practically still needs to be developed. One possibility (as in the case of HORN) is to place a method actor in real situations where he is required to respond to the realities, debates and dilemmas intrinsic to the rhino poaching issue itself. It places an informed performer within the living moment while maintaining a level of creative interpretation and situational independence. Essentially, the value such an approach may have for the documentary mode is that it offers an entirely ‘real’ experience in a real situation presented on an online platform that is constantly changing and adding information. In this way, the contributions of participants become less problematic, since they are not included in defence of an argument, but as representatives from the real world with (moral) convictions independent from those of the filmmaker. The contributions of ‘real’ individuals can therefore be viewed to enhance the critical engagement of the film. My contention is that this would simultaneously also enhance the participation of the audience in that they are required to construct their own argument out of the lived experiences presented to them. It is important to note however that such a film – in this case, HORN – is not a docudrama, since it does not recreate a past event. It is contained within an actual event as it is really happening. It lives within a current situation so as to access reality. The film is therefore more documentary than drama, with the actor functioning as an additional vehicle to further illustrate the extent of the physical and emotional implications of the problem.

I call this approach a ‘lived documentary’ for five specific reasons: Firstly, everybody involved in the making of the film lives through the real situation. Secondly, the film is not a staged or re-created film. What you see is what is truly happening. Thirdly, the event is current and still evolving as the film is being made. Fourthly, there is no straightforward conclusion to the film despite the fact that it will systematically seek to form an opinion about the situation. In this way, the film reflects life as and how it is lived (‘lived documentary’). Finally, a character with a backstory is placed in the middle of a real situation and asked to live within that real world as if he were an actual person, which he in fact becomes. The reactions delivered by the actor can therefore be accepted as authentic because they are expressed and experienced instantaneously by an actual person within the moment.

This article began by focusing on some of the ethical problems filmmakers are facing when making films in which participants play a significant part. I have additionally set out to illustrate how the relationship between a filmmaker and the participant is further complicated by the contextual complexities of a topic. The argument shows that, if these complexities are not considered and illustrated to the audience in their entirety, many crucial factors or ‘truths’ about a specific topic may not be productively revealed. It also shows that failure to consider the wider context, such as the South African condition underlying rhino poaching, may lead to an oversimplification of the issue that has ethical implications. Thirdly, this in turn may lead to the subject becoming convoluted by unproductive criticism harmful to a filmmaker’s chances to ‘tell important truths’. Such truths are never simple. They are always influenced by additional factors with socio-political roots, which are often further complicated by economics, class and race. These observations are borne out by the concrete examples of films by Theroux and Slater-Jones. Both highlight the constant struggle of the filmmaker between forming a relationship with the participants while being simultaneously challenged to remain distanced from the views presented on screen.

My experience as a filmmaker working in both academia and the industry corroborates the argument on the basis of such examples. My approach to documentary practice is constantly confronted with my responsibility as a filmmaker towards all of the issues mentioned above – including a responsibility to my own views and safety. In developing an experimental approach to documentary for the film HORN, I propose that the various dangers to which a filmmaker is exposed in terms of ethics, may be reduced and can perhaps even be defused. At the very least they may be mitigated, since such an approach does not only have to rely on external factors outside the filmmaker’s control. The critical/analytical capabilities of a performer, a filmmaker as well as the viewer are brought to the fore in this way. While these thoughts are still on the drawing board, I hope that such a level of independence could constructively highlight significant dimensions of the rhino poaching problem (and other comparable problems) without relying on the ideologically fuelled stock answers provided by coached officials ordered to present neatly constructed sound bites for the documentary camera. In the end, such an approach would not only present an ethical relationship between the filmmaker and participant that goes both ways, but it would also point towards the broader socio-political dimensions engrained in situations such as the South African condition and its stance towards conservation and the environment in general. In this way, I hope to draw attention to the fact that considering one problem, in this case the conservation issue, does not merely involve the preoccupation with a reduction of reality, such as the preservation of animal and plant life, but can also reveal a complex socio-political network that impacts on human life as well.

  1. Aufderheide, Patricia, Peter Jaszi & Mridu Chandra. Honest Truths: Documentary Filmmakers on Ethical Challenges in their Work, 2009, (accessed 24/11/2015).
  2. Cf. Aufderheide, Jaszi & Chandra.
  3. For the statement and an interview with the director and producer of the film see: (accessed 24/11/2015).
  4. Saving Rhino Phila wins prestigious Panda Award, FilmContact, 2012, (accessed 24/11/2015)
  5. Chisholm, Fiona. ‘Saving Rhino Phila: Documentary calls for horn trade to be legal’, LeadSA, 2012, (accessed 24/11/2015).
  6. For unanswered questions see: (accessed 24/11/2015)
  7. For the statement by the NHU Africa see the comments area of: (accessed 7/9/2012, link has since been removed).
  8. Nash, Kate. ‘Telling stories: the narrative study of documentary ethics’, in New Review of Film and Television Studies, Vol. 10, Nr. 3, September 2012, pp. 320-321.
  9. Renov, Michael. The Subject of Documentary, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2004, p. 147.
  10. Cf. Renov, op. cit., p. 147.

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