Ethics and Filmmaking in Developing Countries

Filmmaking is an excellent way to raise awareness and draw attention to a certain topic or issue. However, before creating a film, there are many ethical issues which must be considered.

The Effect of the Film on its Actors

Since those being filmed open up their lives to the filmmaker, the filmmaker has the responsibility to consider how the film will impact those in it. Though the issue is complex, the book Introduction to Documentary by Bill Nichols provides insight: “What to do with people? Put differently, the question becomes, ‘what responsibility do filmmakers have for the effect of their acts on the lives of those filmed?’ Most of us think of the invitation to act in a film as a desirable, even enviable, opportunity. But what if the invitation is not to act in a film but to be in a film, to be yourself in a film? What will others think of you; how will they judge you? What aspects of your life may stand revealed that you had not anticipated? … These questions have various answers, according to the situation, but they are of a different order from those posed by most fictions. They place a different burden of responsibility on filmmakers who set out to represent others rather than to portray characters of their own invention. These issues add a level of ethical consideration to documentary that is much less prominent in fiction filmmaking.”(1)

Thus, filmmakers have the responsibility to protect the actors, and should strive to cause them no harm. However, often protecting actors is at odds with the desires of the filmmakers to create a compelling and authentic film. “Given that most filmmakers act as representatives of those they film or of the institution sponsoring them rather than as community members, tensions often arise between the filmmaker’s desire to make a compelling film and the individual’s desire to have their social rights and personal dignity respected.”(2) Therefore, achieving an appropriate balance between creating an authentic, compelling film and protecting actors’ rights is essential.

Case Study: The Kite Runner

The Kite Runner is a recent film which faced the ethical dilemma of balancing authenticity with respecting and protecting its actors.  Since the movie is about two boys and their friendship as they grow up in the 1970s in Kabul, Afghanistan, the director decided to shoot the film with Afghani actors. “But they stumbled into an international controversy when the child actors said they feared being harmed by Afghans offended by a rape scene.”(3) Just as the film was about to be released, Afghanistan became increasingly unstable. This caused a lot of fear and anxiety among the actors who thought they would be harmed by other Afghanis due to the controversial nature of the scene. One of the actors, Ahman Khan Mahmoodzada “told reporters that he feared he and his family could be ostracized or even attacked because of the scene.” (4) Thus “the film’s theatrical debut was delayed six weeks to allow four boys to get out of Kabul, underscoring the political and financial risks filmmakers take when they make movies in conflict zones.” (5) Though it is commendable that the directors delayed the release of the film so that the actors could get out of danger, this did not completely resolve the problem. Ebrahimi, one of the child actors involved in the rape scene has received threats on his life, and essentially has to live indoors.(6) This example shows the lasting repercussions that a film can have on its actors. Though Ebrahimi and other actors in the Kite Runner, made a lot of money from the movie, it is still debatable if the filmmakers overall improved the lives of these children. Are filmmakers in the wrong when they use young actors from developing countries? Or are they doing a service to these young children and improving their lives?... It definitely changes their lives- sometimes for the better, sometimes for the worse. The answers to these questions are complex and vary on a case by case basis. Nevertheless, it is essential that filmmakers try to minimize harm to those involved in the film.

Informing People of the Film’s Purpose and How They Will Be Represented

In addition to preventing harm to those in a film, filmmakers should strive to make them aware of how they will be represented in the film and how the film will be used. “Ethics exist to govern the conduct of groups regarding matters for which hard and fast rules, or laws, will not suffice. Should we tell someone we film that they risk making a fool of themselves or that there will be many who will judge their conduct negatively?... Should Michael Moore have told the people of Flint, Michigan, he interviews in Roger and Me that he may make them look foolish in order to make General Motors look even worse?... These questions all point to the unforeseen effects a documentary film can have on those represented in it. Ethical considerations attempt to minimize harmful effects.” (7) The example of Roger and Me illustrates how films can be purposely manipulative and how they can be potentially dangerous to a person’s reputation. Thus, it is ethically imperative that those filmed be aware of how they will be portrayed in a film and how it will be used. Steven Ascher, filmmaker and founder of West City Films corroborates this ethical imperative and explains, “They let you be there as their life unfolds…and that carries with it a responsibility to try to anticipate how the audience will see them, and at times to protect them when necessary.” (8)

When people from developing countries are involved, instilling this understanding, ensuring transparency, and protecting people’s rights are even more critical. This is important because the people being filmed expose their lives to a stranger and, as a consequence, are extremely vulnerable. Moreover, in developing countries this power differential is often exacerbated by differences in economic power between the filmmaker and the subject. “In thinking about their subjects, filmmakers typically described a relationship in which the filmmaker had more social and sometimes economic power than the subject.” (9) Given this power differential, it is essential that filmmakers inform their subjects about how they will be represented, and it is critical that they treat them with respect.

Reflect Reality

“Documentaries may represent the world in the same way a lawyer may represent a client’s interests: they put the case for a particular view or interpretation of evidence before us. In this sense, documentaries do not simply stand for others, representing them in ways they could not do themselves, but rather they more actively make a case or argument; they assert what the nature of a matter is to win consent or influence opinion.”(10) As stated, most documentaries are biased in one way or another in order to prove their point and make a more compelling argument. Nevertheless, when representing a community or issue, it is important to portray multiple voices and perspectives, or, at the very least, acknowledge that they exist.

Case Study: Sicko

Sicko is a provocative and controversial film about the American health care system. The movie contends that the American system is a disaster and that a state-run, universal health care system would be better. Moore uses personal anecdotes and statistics to prove his point. He interviews doctors and patients in countries with state-run health care systems such as Canada, Britain and France who extol their systems of universal care. He also conducts interviews with American patients who have been denied care, such as 9/11 rescue workers who were denied government funds to care for their subsequent physical and psychological ailments. However, the documentary presents a one-sided viewpoint and fails to mention people who have benefitted from the American system. It also fails to critique universal health care systems.  “While the movie does a good job of showing how private insurance companies ration care, it does not show that Europe is also rationing care. In the American system, private companies do deny care to some people or drop them from coverage… however, the Canadian and European systems also ration care through longer wait times and not covering certain procedures.” (11) In addition, “Moore has been accused of presenting only the most favorable information for his side and ignoring or downplaying the positives on the other side… The stories and images of health-care ‘victims’ are highly visible in Sicko, compared with alternative perspectives, which are nearly invisible. There are no anecdotes of people who have had positive experiences with their health-insurance coverage… We see no testimonies of people who have had negative experiences with health care in Cuba or in Canada. Another way in which Moore downplays the ‘other side’ is by objectifying them: health-insurance executives and hospital administrators are faceless, anonymous villains who voices are heard second-hand or not at all.” (12)

Case Study: Good Fortune

Unlike Sicko, which very clearly uses one perspective to represent reality, Good Fortune demonstrates multiple voices to represent a community and portray their reality. (13) Good Fortune is a film about development projects, which focuses on community members instead of emphasizing policy makers and the people giving out aid. The film follows two Kenyans, Silva, a midwife and community leader who lives in Kibera, Nairobi’s largest slum, and Jackson, a farmer in the rural swamp area. Both of their lives have been affected by outsiders’ projects. Silva’s home and job are being threatened by the United Nations HABITAT program which hopes to improve upon the “deplorable living conditions” in the slum by demolishing sections of it and replacing the houses with cement, block-styled apartments. Though there are aspects that could be improved upon in the slum, such as the lack of indoor plumbing or electricity, many of the people who actually live there are happy. Silva explains, “since I came from home, I have seen a big difference in my income, so I am happy to stay in Kibera. There’s a lot of trash, but life is good.” She also mentions how if she is evicted from the slum, she will not be able to find other affordable housing, so she’d “prefer it if those people just let us stay in the slum.” Jackson is a farmer whose land and livelihood is being threatened by the plans of Dominion Farms Limited, a farming company that plans on flooding the land to create rice paddies. Dominion Farms hopes that the farm will help alleviate poverty by providing food, jobs, and stimulating the local economy. Though this may be a well-intentioned idea, Jackson explains, “I am not poor I have resources… and that resource is being taken away by a developer.” By including Silva, Jackson, as well as the perspectives of UN Officials and the CEO of Dominion Farms Limited, Good Fortune, effectively illustrates many different voices and opinions regarding aid work. The movie also acknowledges that not everyone in the communities was against the aid work. The many different opinions represented more accurately reflect the realities and complexities of aid work than a one-sided film would have done.


When making a film, there are many choices and options for filmmakers. Filmmakers must determine what clips to include, which people to film, and how to represent the film participants. Therefore, it is important for filmmakers to understand the repercussions of their decisions. Filmmakers should strive to do no harm to the people they are filming, and they should strive to represent them in the best way possible, or otherwise inform them of how they will be presented. In addition, though filmmakers typically create a film to represent a point of view, they should not use one voice or perspective to represent an entire community or issue.


(1) Nichols, B. (2001). Introduction to Documentary. “Why are Ethical Issues Central to Documentary Filmmaking?”

(2) Ibid.

(3) “‘Kite Runner’ stirs up controversy with rape.” (2007)

(4) Ibid.

(5) Ibid.

(6) Sarhaddi Nelson, S. “ 'Kite Runner' star's family feels exploited by studio.” July 2, 2008.

(7) Nichols, B. (2001). Introduction to Documentary. “Why are Ethical Issues Central to Documentary Filmmaking?”

(8) Aufderheide, P., Jaszi, P., and Chandra, M. “Honest Truths: Documentary filmmakers on Ethical Challenges in their Work.”

(9) Ibid.

(10) Nichols, B. (2001). Introduction to Documentary. “Why are Ethical Issues Central to Documentary Filmmaking?”

(11) “Sicko.” Accessed on 25 May 2011.

(12) Borden, S. “Documentary Tradition and the Ethics of Michael Moore’s Sicko.”