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Question of Consent Is Key When Shooting Documentaries About Trauma

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What do documentary filmmakers working with contributors suffering from trauma or experiencing traumatic situations need to take into account when filming?

This key question, which has become all the more timely for filmmakers against the backdrop of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, was among the themes addressed at CPH:Conference, the Copenhagen Intl. Documentary Film Festival’s industry event that runs alongside the fest.

Much of the conversation revolved around questions of power and consent in filmmaking.

According to panelist Katy Robjant, a consultant clinical psychologist specializing in the treatment of PTSD and other trauma-related disorders in asylum seekers, refugees and victims of trafficking, “the whole nature of trauma is the dynamic of power and powerlessness, especially when talking about interpersonal violence. All of their control and self-autonomy has been taken away from them, so one of the first things to consider is the inherent power dynamic between you and the traumatized person. This leads to consent issues in terms of how to make sure that people who are vulnerable can give their full consent.”

Key to this, said Robjant, is allowing the contributor the time and space to decide what part of their experience they wish to talk about.

If this means changing your angle or storyline, so be it, said panel moderator Gavin Rees, who runs the DART Center, a resource center and global network of journalists dedicated to improving media coverage of trauma, conflict and tragedy. It issues guidelines for reporters, editors and producers working on tight deadlines, and advocates what’s known as non-extractive filmmaking, based on accountability and respect for the contributor.

This kind of adaptability is particularly pertinent for journalists working in war zones, said Rees. “As a journalist you need your soundbites, your pictures, your stats – the classic risk when you are under time pressure is the danger of being on auto-pilot. But if you can’t get the material you want, you just have to find another way of telling the story. Be upfront with your contributor, tell them the situation and reframe your story.”

For Mais Al-Bayaa, an Emmy and Robert F. Kennedy Award-winning British-Iraqi filmmaker who has worked in hostile environments in the Middle East since 2003, it is crucial to guarantee the contributor’s safety not only during the filming but also once the film is broadcast.

“If you are not familiar with a country you should always have local knowledge,” she said. “When working with local producers I always have a second person whom I can consult on how to conduct the interview without endangering that person later on, to check that I have their consent.”

She said this was especially important in the Middle East: “Nowadays, consent has to be universal, not just for a particular TV channel,” she said, adding that even if it was conducted for a foreign channel, the interview could end up on a local television station or on social media. “Some filmmakers don’t realize that in the Middle East, most often the violence suffered by the victims comes from their own government, so they need to be made aware of this.”

The conversation, however, is not just between filmmakers and contributors but also with commissioning editors, said the panelists.

“You should always have a very candid conversation with your commissioners. They might want to put you under time or budget pressure,” said Al-Bayaa, who also warned about the psychological impact of such filmmaking on those making them. “When you go to a conflict zone, despite being very experienced, it doesn’t mean you are immune, you can have some bad days, so you should always build trust between commissioners and filmmakers, especially for freelancers, who may not want to upset the commissioner,” she said, adding that it was also important to keep the conversation going within the team on site to talk about the feelings triggered by traumatic testimonies.

The notion of trust was recurrent throughout the panel discussion. The conference’s third panelist was filmmaker Ilse van Velzen, whose “Weapon of War,” about rape in war-torn Congo, won the 2010 Golden Calf, the Dutch national film award.

She is an advocate of “slow journalism,” which she summed up in one sentence: “The most important thing when you approach someone you want to interview is to approach them in the way you would want to be approached.”

Van Velzen and her twin sister have shot several films in Congo which they have screened in the local community. For her, too, the notion of consent was key to filmmaking.

“It’s really important to make sure you have a good network of local people and organizations that can guide you, when you are interviewing women, and to have this open conversation. All the people in the film agreed to share their story abroad, but at that point we hadn’t yet talked about taking it back to their community, and there is a huge taboo regarding sexual violence there.”

Before organizing the screenings, the van Velzens worked with the contributors and local NGOs to decide whether the film should be shown in its entirety or not.

“Then we asked: what should we do?,” explained Van Velzen. “And it came from them that they should tell their story in their own backyard. But every time we brought it to their village, we made sure there was a safety net around them to ensure they would be seen as role models and not be victimized afterwards.”

Bringing the conversation to a close on a positive note, Rees noted: “The world is changing: we’re in a totally different place to where we were 15 years ago, talking about the ownership of the stories being with the person who’s experienced it. At film festivals 10 years ago, certainly in the field of journalism, it was: ‘Well, somebody has put it on the public record, so it can be used!’ So that whole question [about ownership and consent] that has framed the discussion comes from a better place.”

“Beyond Courage: Trauma-Informed storytelling” was hosted by conference curator A.C. Coppens, founder of Berlin-based events agency The Catalysts.