Open City Documentary Festival 2018 – Focus: The Ethics of Seeing


Steven Eastwood’s film ISLAND, produced by Elhum Shakerifar, is released nationwide from the 14th September, and will be discussed as part of their Open City Documentary Festival session ‘The Ethics of Seeing.‘ Here, Eastwood introduces the themes of that session.

What constitutes an attentive way of seeing in a documentary? The extended take, filmed from a respectful distance, has long been the mainstay of direct cinema, adopted by those who regarded proximity to their subjects as invasive and too interventional. But this is often regarded as a charged gaze, akin to the human stare. Handheld camera attitudes taken up around advances in portable analogue and then digital technology produced an edgy immediacy to the image, eschewing compositional force, instead editing with the camera, dynamically adjusting the image relationship to the subject. DSLRs and the use of prime lenses have seen a return to focal depths. However, received wisdom still says that overly composed and aestheticised images must inevitably cause neglect towards, or objectification of, the person being filmed.

The difficulty of appropriate form and what syntax is permissible are also acute at the level of shot and composition. The steady, smooth camera indicates a certain stateliness as well as a permission to be present (there is no hesitancy or unrest in the camera attitude) and yet an overtly graceful shot, such as may be achieved with a dolly on a camera track or Steadicam, might also suggest aesthetic depersonalisation, or even a callous preoccupation with production values, which could translate as a disregard for the subject. Similarly, the use of a considered pan or tilt onto, from, or across a subject – a gesture commonly used in fiction filmmaking – may translate as explicitly aestheticising a person’s image at a time when such a depiction may be inappropriate.

The most conventional type of looking within non-fiction film operates within the circuit of the returned look, where a subject acknowledges and gives tacit consent to filming simply by looking back towards the off-camera filmmaker. However, such circuits are not available when a person has lost consciousness. All of the camera considerations listed above are amplified when a filmmakers encounter vulnerable populations – people whose images are already carefully guarded by protective gatekeepers. When it comes to images of pain – of those at the end of life, for example – the mode of filming can be extremely limited, with the filmmaker often choosing to look away, backing away from direct representations, replacing them with rhetorical remarks, metaphor and euphemism, or opting for a kind of neutral image.

However, established and received conventions of seeing, rather than being an act of consideration towards a sensitive subject, can sometimes achieve the opposite. Certain kinds of images reduce death and infantilise the dying. Well-meaning ethical stances can, on occasion, run the risk of preventing the dying (and the deceased) from the sort of direct, intimate and candid images regularly afforded to members of society who do not have a terminal illness. Looking away out of respect is also denying a person an image.

With this in mind, the session sets out to consider what aesthetic enunciations are possible in the context of bearing witness to, or sharing in the seeing of, illness and the end of life. What tools for seeing do we have and what kind of shots, and actions, might filmmaker and subject morally justify? How might explicit authorship/authorial remarks be posited as an ethical principle? Can there be an ethics of aesthetics?