Many of the most important issues facing our society are also those that powerful people or institutions don’t want made public. Documentary filmmakers who tell truth to power often face aggressive attacks from powerful individuals, organizations, businesses, governmental agencies, and industry associations. A new report by the Center for Media & Social Impact, School of Communication, American University written by a team including Patricia Aufderheide as principal investigator and Angelica Das as project manager examines important questions related to this context: Are independent documentary makers, often working outside of media institutions for long periods of time, and sometimes unfamiliar with journalistic practices, working with this reality? What are the risks, and can they be mitigated to encourage more and better expression on the important issues of the day?
“Documentaries that tell truth to power are important in a media ecology that can sustain and nurture democratic discourse,” says Prof. Patricia Aufderheide, Principal Investigator of the report, she continues, “Understanding the current environment for production is crucial to understanding what makers need and can do to lower risk.”
The report finds that the risks of doing such work are well-established in the investigative journalism community, but not always well understood among documentary filmmakers. The report documents attitudes, practices, and problems and addresses how makers of “dangerous documentaries” might best mitigate known risks and what kinds of support might help improve the current situation. This document should be read by every practicing and aspiring documentary filmmaker who wants to tell truth to power, providing practical guidance on how to minimize risk while performing the crucial service of informing citizens about the most important issues of our day.