Have We Become Documentary Filmmakers?

BBC reporter Joshua Nevett wrote an interesting piece about people who have dared to record moments of police brutality. Nevett begins by writing about 17-year-old Darnella Frazier, the young woman who had the presence of mind to film what would eventually become the murder of George Floyd. The story reminded me of an ethical discussion during a documentary film class from my grad school days at Carolina. My professor, Cal Pryluck, had published an essay titled: Ultimately We Are All Outsiders: The Ethics of Documentary Filming.

Dr. Pryluck was a man ahead of his time. He was always thinking. I remember when he asked us what kind of films we would buy to have on a shelf in our homes. The whole concept of owning major films for one’s home made us chuckle. But he saw the possibility on the horizon. He always pushed us to think and question. He never shied away from making us uncomfortable. The most profound moment in his class came on the day he showed the movie Night and Fog. Two of us ran from the room sobbing.

When one learns the history of World War II by studying dates, troop movements, victories and defeats, one fails to grasp the inhumanity behind those facts. Night and Fog left nothing to the imagination. It was pieced together from newsreels and location shots of abandoned concentration camps. My classmate and I left the room at the point where the film showed cloth being made from the hair of Nazi prisoners. It was horrific. It was meant to be horrific.

Dr. Pryluck always leaned on us to think about what we might eventually do as communicators. What would we be communicating? Why and how? In his essay Pryluck wrestled with the responsibilities and considerations documentary filmmakers had before aiming their cameras and recording everyday events.

PRYLUCK, CALVIN. “Ultimately We Are All Outsiders: The Ethics of Documentary Filming.” Journal of the University Film Association, vol. 28, no. 1, 1976, pp. 21–29. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/20687309. Accessed 12 June 2020.

Lightweight equipment. This was written in 1976. Cameras were light by comparison to what Matthew Brady hauled around during the Civil War, but nothing like what we have today. And remember, before the invention of video, documentary filmmakers used film.

Fast forward to 2020, we all carry cameras; we all have the potential to document; we all have ethical considerations whether we entertain those considerations or not. What pictures do we take? Where do we post them? Do we realize that once something hits social media, there is no longer control of what has been documented?

That Darnella Frazier had the presence of mind to stop and record the murder of George Floyd makes her a heroine in my book. She showed America “aspects of our world that in others times would have been obscured from view” as Pryluck wrote. Her documentary film will force change. We already see change happening.

I have not watched the totality of Ms. Frazier’s work. The still shots alone brought the horror alive for me. The look on Derek Chauvin’s face telegraphed that what was under his knee was not a human being. I have seen a fair share of police take-downs and arrests; I have never, ever seen a police officer put a knee on the back of someone’s neck–one of the most fragile areas of the body where the brain stem and spinal chord meet. There were three other officers present and not one intervened as a man begged for his life.

Of course, while Ms. Frazier received plaudits for her work; she became vilified. The ignorant opinion writers of Facebook decided she had recorded and posted her documentary for her own benefit. In psychology that’s called projection. Those on social media who seek their 15-minutes of fame in ugly ways projected that Ms. Frazier was just like them. Hardly. It took courage to record that scene. Ms. Frazier could have been taken down by an officer herself for recording. And officer could have taken her phone. Ms. Frazier knew exactly what she was doing at the moment and why.

In a Facebook post after the event Ms. Frazier wrote:

If it wasn’t for me, four cops would’ve still had their jobs, causing other problems. My video went worldwide for everyone to see and know.

https://www.bbc.com/news/world-us-canada-52942519

I wonder what Dr. Pryluck would write today about the ability everyone has to become a documentary filmmaker with a phone? The title of his piece, Ultimately We Are All Outsiders, pertains to his thesis that just because a filmmaker aims a camera at a scene, it doesn’t tell the whole story. There is always more to know than just what the camera captures. As my former assistant news director, Penny Micklebury, liked to remind us, news stories are like a plate of spaghetti. One story has many strands.

In closing his essay, Pryluck warned about documenting the lives of others without thinking of the consequences.

But Dr. Pryluck never predicted the power we would have one day with our own cameras in our pockets. Recording life has almost become second nature, especially for those like Ms. Frazier who grew up with the technology. I don’t think Dr. Pryluck would argue, in this instance, that Ms. Frazier robbed George Floyd of his dignity as she documented his final moments. Mr. Floyd’s dignity was robbed by Derek Chauvin–a man sworn to serve and protect, who instead, murdered.

I was reminded last night of a quote attributed to neuro-psychiatrist Viktor Frankl, but apparently came from psychologist Rollo May.

“Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.”

https://quoteinvestigator.com/2018/02/18/response/

This might be better guidance for our times. When acting on a stimulus by recording it, we should remember there is a space in which we can think about whether or not our response should lead to posting it. We have that freedom.

As hard as it is to watch, I am glad Ms. Frazier aimed a large spotlight on the murder of George Floyd and shared it with us. And I believe her lawyer, Seth Cobin, is correct when he said:

Like Rosa Parks, she didn’t set out to be a hero or a civil rights icon. She just happened to be in a place, at the right time. This isn’t a Martin Luther King, this isn’t a Malcolm X, who chose to lead people. This is someone who is a regular person who did the right thing.

https://www.bbc.com/news/world-us-canada-52942519
Photo of Darnella Frazier
Darnella Frazier

Though Dr. Pryluck suggested we are ultimately all outsiders in terms of knowing people’s back stories, we can no longer be outsiders to the atrocities Black Americans face on a daily basis. The documenting of this kind of inhumanity forces us, for better I would argue, to become insiders. To see what is happening; to make change.

And as insiders, we have work to do.

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