posted 2011-04-27 12:00:10

Human Rights Department discusses importance of documentaries

Panelists for the Human Rights Dept. event / Photo by Jenady Garshofsky/Envoy
Panelists for the Human Rights Dept. event / Photo by Jenady Garshofsky/Envoy
Ethics in filmmaking: Human Rights Department discusses importance of documentaries

Jenady Garshofsky

Associate News Editor

On April 5, the Roosevelt House hosted a panel discussion which invited students to learn more about how human rights are portrayed in documentaries.

The panel consisted of Hampton Francher, writer of the script for Blade Runner, director of Minus Man, and the deputy director of Human Rights Watch's International Film Festival; Steve Gorelick, a Hunter media studies professor; and Joanne Mariner, Director of the newly- established Human Rights Department at Hunter.

The discussion focused on the word “propaganda.”  In particular, panel members debated about the word’s accuracy when it is used in documentaries.

According to Francher, if a documentary succeeds because “it gets the emotion, that's accurate.” This is true, he said, even if propaganda is used to achieve this.

Andrea Holley responded, “Everyone's writing from one school of thought. Every film maker is coming from one point of view. Documentaries convey strong emotion, interested in people relating to the documentary, the power to grasp things you might not experience. Propaganda means the film subject is up to the film maker.”

While informative and heartfelt documentaries are prone to “subjectivity and falsity, propaganda does this,” Holley emphasized.

Mariner concluded that “the person with the camera ultimately decides.”

Colby Minifie, a freshman interested in human rights, questions documentaries based on false characters, even if they open the viewers’ eyes.

Francher and Holley agree that film is an art form, but there will always be differences in accuracy and narrative.

According to Gorelick, “the viewer should know the distinctions and not hold standards.”

Documentaries also raise ethical concerns. Sophomore Sushana Dubreil questioned the ethics of documentaries when filmmakers hide behind the camera as events unfold in front of them.

Holley replies, “There is no criterion. Everyone is different. I ethically cannot imagine filming when someone is dying. Something filmed so questionably is uncomfortable.”

Francher concluded, “There is no black or white.”

Interested in human rights and documentaries? Don't miss out on Human Rights Watch Film Festival coming to Lincoln Center in June 2011. Once the information is posted on the website,, students can purchase discount tickets to see documentaries from film makers all around the world.