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Documentary and Ethics (Online)

Through a collective exploration of the moral boundaries of nonfiction film, this course will encourage you to question your beliefs, deepen your insights and (re-)position yourself as a documentary filmmaker.

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All documentary filmmakers have faced ethical questions concerning filming the world around them. Documenting and creating stories is not neutral, but biased and intentional by definition. Whether it is the people in front of the camera or the viewers of the final film, filmmakers make them part of their view on the world. We as non-fiction filmmakers operate in a field between art and reality, as our films get entangled in a loop of filming reality and eventually become part of it. How do we position ourselves in this sphere of powers without doing harm? Or is harm allowed or even sometimes necessary?

In this course, we will collectively explore ethical issues of nonfiction filmmaking. By watching controversial films, discussing dilemmas, and reading essays, manifestos and interviews, we will question our beliefs, deepen our insights and (re-)position ourselves as documentary filmmakers. We expect an active attitude from you as a course participant: you can bring in your own questions and dilemmas and react to those of others. Be prepared to share and open your mind.

Each week, you will be assigned some reading, viewing and writing tasks for the following week.

Rules of this course

Sensitive issues are being discussed. Sharing questions and dilemmas make all of us vulnerable. Let’s agree on the following rules:

-All ideas can be expressed within the context of respect for others, there is no censorship.

-Have respect for other points of view – no one has the final right to be right

-Be polite, always. Language matters.

-If you want to talk, you also have to listen. Really listen.

-Be kind and considerate, especially if you don’t understand.


Week 1: Introduction

Overview of the course, rules of engagement, questions, introduction of the tutor and all of the students.

-Introduction of myself as documentary filmmaker by showing a scene of Matthew’s Laws

-Introduction of the students

-Introduction of the course program and the issues that will be addressed

-Theory: ethics, morality & legality. What is the difference between them?

-Different documentary genres and their relationship with ethics: direct cinema, cinema vérité, activist films, propaganda, essay films, hybrid documentary, etc.


Week 2: The ownership of stories & The Other

Can a story be owned? What makes someone entitled to tell a story and others not? Which documentary films are for you to make and which ones are better told by someone else? And for what reasons? We will address questions around representation and power, ethnicity, neural diversity, poverty porn, participation and The Other. We will focus on direct cinema (fly on the wall), participation and cinema vérité (self-reference of the filmmakers)

-Watching scenes of Stop Filming Us and Grizzly Man

-The birth of direct cinema & cinema vérité and its current relevance

-Discussing ownership, participation and self-reference in documentary film

-Discussing moral dilemmas of the students


Week 3: The path to hell is paved with good intentions, or isn’t it?

This week, we will focus on activism, do-good attitudes, and the right to be wrong. Why and with which intentions are you making your films? What approaches and processes fit your goals? To what extend do you consider unintentional consequences of your actions? When does the end justify the means?

We will briefly cover some ethical theories that have been developed in the past centuries, and that can roughly be divided between ideas that focus on the consequences of one’s actions and ideas about actions informed by inherent virtues:





We will then focus on issue-driven documentaries and activism, including uneasy questions on the powers behind the filmmaker’s process, financial interests behind the film, cooperation with other parties and the struggle to stay morally clean.


Week 4: Filming evil, evil films

A lot of documentary films are dedicated to stories of injustice and inequality. Usually the perspective of the unprivileged, the powerless and the victims is predominant. But is this right? Shouldn’t the other perspective, the one of the perpetrators and the powerful, be equally present? Why would this be a good or bad idea? What could be the consequences? And how feasible is it?

-Watching a scene of Models by Ulrich Seidl

-Discussing The Act of Killing and Under the Sun (homework). Why and when is the exposition of evil and violence allowed? Is Nick Fraser right in his critique on The Act of Killing?

-Discussing the manifestos of the students


Week 5: Fictional documentary & fake news

The rise of hybrid films, exploring the realm between fiction and documentary, is shifting the moral playground. How does this change the way we stage a scene? How can this be a solution for some of the issues that we have discussed? And how is this connected to phenomena like deep fake and fake news? Is it even contributing to them?

-Watching a scene of Weiner and discussing the feedback loop of media & reality

-Watching a scene of Actress and discussing the boundaries of fiction and non-fiction

-Discussing the possibilities and risks of hybrid filmmaking

-Watching the scenes/experiments of all the students

-Closing of the course

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Marc Schmidt


Marc Schmidt (1970) has set for himself the goal to explore the mental realm of our existence. His films qualify by a direct emotive approach and philosophical reflections. After years of documentary approach, recently more fictional elements are appearing in his films. In the Arms of Morpheus (2019), The Chimpansee Complex (2015) and Matthew's Laws (2012) were screened internationally at filmfestivals like CPH-DOX, Vision du Réel and Karlovy Vary.