Centre for Cultural Partnerships - Theses

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    Reflexivity, collaboration and ethical documentary filmmaking: a practice led approach
    Thomas, Stephen ( 2017)
    This creative practice research concerns reflexivity, collaboration and ethics in authored documentary filmmaking—with a focus on the filmmaker-participant relationship. The written thesis provides a first-hand account and self-reflexive analysis of the production of Freedom Stories, consisting of a feature and six short documentaries. These constitute the creative component of the doctorate and utilise reflexivity in the quest to achieve a more ethical practice. Recent scholarship has questioned the view of documentary participants as powerless in the filmmaking process, recognising their agency in relationships with filmmakers and the reality of consent as a process of ongoing negotiation, in which a right of veto is considered. Taking this as a starting point, I have employed an explicitly collaborative approach through which former asylum seekers were invited to share their stories of arrival, detention, and eventual settlement in Australia. An important aim was to explore how such an attempt to deal with this asymmetrical power relationship between filmmaker and participant might be carried into the creative product itself to render the filmmaking process more transparent. The importance of mutual trust and what it means to sensitively engage with participants was central to this exploration. As Freedom Stories features people from the Middle-East, who have often been negatively represented as the ‘other’ in western commentary, I found the philosophy of Emmanuel Levinas to be particularly relevant. This kind of filmmaking depends on the quality of the encounter with participants, and in a way, what I have articulated is a kind of heightened ethics of everyday life¬—the aim of which is to work for the benefit of the participants, not just the film. This ethical tension permeates the filmmaking process, in which the rounded representation of participants is paramount. In the written thesis, I self-reflexively examine dilemmas experienced during filming and editing, when the processes involved and the imperatives of narrative storytelling tended to work against ethical representation. I also discuss the dilemmas of exploiting personal stories of pain, which are common among asylum seekers. In experimenting with reflexivity in my filmmaking, I have articulated an approach that incorporates notions of performativity and improvisation. Through analysing the production process, including by means of a Production Journal, I have developed an iterative-reflexive approach to both practice and research. The conclusions reached confirm the centrality of participants in ethical filmmaking; the importance of a collaborative model in which agency is encouraged; the requirements of personal integrity and self-awareness in the filmmaker; and the necessity of ongoing review as a mode of reflexive ethical practice. Such attributes require an environment that encourages their employment, which is not always the case in the film and TV ‘industry’. The viability of this collaborative approach has been demonstrated through applying the ideas enunciated to achieve a more ethical practice, a greater transparency, and what might be termed a redemptive aesthetic, which calls on audiences through the performance of the documentary work to engage in deeper empathy with what really matters—that is, the life experiences of the people whose stories are explored on screen.