‘To thine own self be true’ and Pluralist Ethics

Jay Ruby identified three essential ethical responsibilities a filmmaker must grapple with in documentary production:

(1) the image maker’s personal moral contract to produce an image that is somehow a true reflection of their intention in making the image in the first place-to, use a cliché, it is being true to one’s self; (2) the moral obligation of the producer to his or her subjects; and (3) the moral obligation of the producer to the potential audience.

(2005: 211)

The filmmaker’s responsibly to their own creative autonomy is the least intuitive aspect of the documentary triad of ethical commitments because creativity is not commonly associated with the field of ethics. This is because because a person’s commitment to themselves contravenes the dominant perception of ethics as concerned with the treatment of others or the principles of how to behave in a society.

I would argue, a useful way to reflect upon Ruby’s use of Shakespeare’s aphorism, ‘to thine own self be true’ (2003, 1.3: 32), is to see it within the framework of pluralist ethics.

Pluralist, relativist, and sceptical theorisations of ethics were developed to account for the wide variety of normative definitions of “moral” behaviour. They each argue the variety in values and behavioural codes are informed by a specific context, history, and culture. The strong argument of meta ethical relativism positions each moral framework as alternatives to one another. They are equally legitimate in context, but ultimately incomparable, because of differences in material, social and historical conditions (Baghramian and Coliva, 2020: 228). A sceptical position asserts there is no such thing as ethical truth because ethics is entirely subjective and thus lacks any foundation (Baghramian in Boland Smith, 2021). Whereas a value pluralist would argue:
‘…. there are many objective ends and ultimate values, some incompatible with others, pursued by different societies at various times, or by different groups in the same society, or by particular individuals within them. People can lead valuable moral lives by pursuing conflicting but equally ultimate and objective ends.’ (Baghramian and Coliva, 2020: 250-251).

Ethical progress has occurred in human history, for example the abolishment of slavery and the improvement of women’s rights, and some moral principles can be defined uncontroversially, particularly negative ones such as “torturing children is bad”. So, while pluralism postulates the existence of ethical truths, it posits that it is both hard to define and there may be many correct answers (Baghramian in Boland Smith, 2021). Some value systems or individual acts may be more ethical than others, and competition between these perspectives may account for ethical progress.

“Being true to oneself” is an investment of trust in one’s own judgment, over normative codes of ethics. From a pluralist perspective, this can be seen as a commitment to behave in a way that, while distinct from others, is still anchored by meaningful insights, that aspire towards elusive ethical truths.
I have deconstructed Ruby’s formulation to show that autonomy, rather than being antithetical to ethics, can guide individualised interpretations of what counts as ethical behaviour. Furthermore, many philosophers — including Ayn Rand (1964), Jean-Paul Sartre (2015), Simone de Beauvoir (1948) and Jacques Lacan (2013) — have argued that autonomy is a virtue that should orient one’s ethics. It is beyond the scope of this text to engage fully with each of these theorists on the topic of autonomy. My point is a filmmaker’s commitment to their own creative autonomy, is a relevant ethical consideration to balance against the treatment of participants and a responsibility to their spectators.


COLIVA, A. & BAGHRAMIAN, M. 2020. Relativism. London: Routledge.

DE BEAUVOIR, S. & FRECHTMAN, B. 1948. The Ethics of Ambiguity… Translated… by Bernard Frechtman, New York.

KANT, I. 1949. Immanuel Kant: The Critique of Practical Reason and other Writings in Moral Philosophy, Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

LACAN, J. & MILLER, J.-A. 2013. The ethics of psychoanalysis 1959-1960: The seminar of Jacques Lacan, London: Routledge.

RAND, A. 1964. The Virtue of Selfishness. In: RAND, A. (ed.) The Virtue of Selfishness: A New Concept of Egoism. New York: Signet.

ROWLAND SMITH, R. 2022. The paradox of moral codes | David Friedman, Timothy Williamson and Maria Baghramian. In: ROWLAND SMITH, R., FRIEDMAN, D., WILLIAMSON, T. & BAGHRAMIAN, M. (eds.) Philosophy for our Times. London: Institute of Art and Ideas.

RUBY, J. 2005 [1979]. The Ethics of Image Making. In: ROSENTHAL, A. & CORNER, J. (eds.) New Challenges for Documentary. 2nd ed. ed. Manchester: Manchester University Press.

SARTRE, J.-P. 2015. Being and nothingness. Central Works of Philosophy v4: Twentieth Century: Moore to Popper, 4, 155.

SHAKESPEAR, W. 2003. Hamlet, Prince of Denmark. The Complete Works of Shakespeare. New Haven: Yale University Press.

Storytellers: Alex Widdowson

by Addison Dlott

The Storytellers is an interview series that seeks to understand what it takes to tell better stories from the perspectives of professional storytellers from all walks of life. In this series, we’ll talk about story crafting, narrative devices, and dissect the unique challenges of visual, written and oral storytelling. Originally posted on Adapt.

About Alex Widdowson

Documentary Director and Researcher

Alex Widdowson is a London based multi-award-winning animated documentary director and researcher specializing in the representation of neurodivergence and psychology. In addition to freelancing and his work as festival producer for Factual Animation Film Festival, he lectures on animation at the University of Hertfordshire and is a PhD candidate at Queen Mary University of London, researching animated documentary ethics.   

What are the unique challenges and opportunities that come with telling a nonfiction story through an animated lens?

The unique challenges and opportunities for me revolve around representation and ethics. With animated documentary, well, with all documentary, you have a responsibility to your participant…a duty of care. You have a responsibility to your audiences, which are around issues of truthfulness in film, and then you’ve got your own responsibility as a creative practitioner to be true to yourself.

You can totally control how your participant looks and what they do and where they are. And it’s enormous power.

Animated documentary really expands all of those responsibilities. You can totally control how your participant looks and what they do and where they are. And it’s enormous power. And with that, it undermines the truth, the reliability of the image. You might support that with interviews, but maybe you don’t.

What’s good about animation is that it’s a modular process. Maybe you start with an interview, you then reflect on how you want to interpret that interview through animation as a meta commentary on what was said in that moment. But then you can also go back to your participant and say, “these are some ideas of how it might look,” and you can work together on that. I’ve had this interesting innovation, in this new film Drawing on Autism, I then record those collaborative discussions, and fold them back into the narrative of the film. When it comes to talking about structure, a lot of it is changed and doesn’t so much rely on conventional short story structure. 

How are you taking a good story and making it great?

It feels a bit like distillation, you know, the way you’re just constantly refining. You take a few seconds off here, a few seconds off there…you have to be really decisive. When I’m editing, I work in layered channels. And if I know something is brilliant, I’ll put it on the top layer. If I’m not sure about something, I might knock it down a layer. Sometimes I delete the bottom two rows and then start again. It is very rare I delete something, and I miss it. Which is a surprise, you think, “oh, but maybe that could be used in another way,” it’s not true. You don’t need everything; you don’t need to hold onto those things and be precious in that way. You just can’t when you’re working in the short format.

It is very rare I delete something, and I miss it.

It’s quite different now that I’m grappling with longer form material, but I’m still using the same technique where you just chip away. I think it might have been Michelangelo that talked about “there’s a sculpture in the granite block somewhere.” And he just has to find it. It feels like that sometimes. You listen to it a thousand times when you’re making the film, it just feels like it was always there, and it wasn’t, it is something you’ve basically crafted. Yes, it’s based on a conversation, but it’s very much constructed in a way that felt right to you. There is a high degree of artificiality and constructiveness in all documentary practice, and you can tell a story in different ways, but there’s something sort of fateful about it at the end, where you feel like it was always there, and you just had to find it.

Why does storytelling matter and why is it powerful?

We are a storytelling species. We think that science is the thing that guides us in this modern age. I don’t think it’s true. There are very few people who actually have the expertise to really grapple with the science and understand just how messy everything is. What we get as a public is massively simplified and tied into some sort of narrative of how we should all behave. 

When we go to therapy or have a deep discussion with a friend to try and understand the mess of our personal lives or our inner thoughts, we have to tell each other stories for it to be digestible. It’s just how our brains work.

We are a storytelling species.

Doing a PhD, you start to realize how slippery everything is and, especially a humanities PhD, starts to show you just how fluid language is and all knowledge…there’s a certain lifespan to everything we think we know is a fact. At some point it will be changed or the ideological system that views it will think of it very differently.

What questions do you ask yourself before starting to tell a story?

I used to rely on my personal angle, like, “I can relate to this topic. That’s something I’m passionate about. This is a person who knows a lot about it. Maybe we’ll have a chat about it.” And I’d be careful not to promise too much. There’s a low cost of sitting down with someone and having a chat for an hour or two. There’s a huge cost of spending six months making an animated film about it. But I think ethics is a much more important issue. Are you the right person to tell this story?

I started off with [telling] my own story, but in terms of ethics, I built up my confidence telling the stories of people I knew. And then I thought, “it’s time to really use all these skills to tackle a topic I don’t have significant prior knowledge of.”

And what does that mean, ethically, to enter a community and say, “well, I can help you tell your story,” Or “we can tell a story that you think that needs to be told, but I don’t have that primary experience myself.” And it does cause problems and you do make mistakes and you are just not up to speed with how people like to describe themselves. 

Speaking for or entering a community…that’s a big problem.

I didn’t start my PhD in autism representation and animated documentary ethics knowing the difference between a person with autism and autistic person. It wasn’t intuitive to me. But speaking for or entering a community…that’s a big problem. And so, I’ve been spending years trying to work out how to reduce all those risks and develop methods that are intensely collaborative, and reflexive and positional. I started to learn from the autistic advocates about the neurodiversity paradigm and how relevant it was to me, and I developed a new comfort with my own diagnosis and realized I was in a very comparable position, and I should be talking about the fact I’m schizoaffective more often.

I started my career by making films about those experiences of psychosis. I still experience some form of neurodivergence that marks me as different from other people, but I wouldn’t give it up. It’s who I am. There’s probably an enormous number of people with quite scary labels to others, that just don’t talk about it. I’m glad to advocate for the schizoaffective community.

How are you measuring the impact of the films you make?

I’m not industrialized enough to be able to collect that data and know for sure. I get people writing me messages to say how much [my films] mean to them. Certainly, that happened a lot when [Music & Clowns] was released by the New York Times. 

I think as an artist, it’s very hard to know if you’ve done well. I mean, sometimes it isn’t hard at all. I finished Music & Clowns and I was like, “yeah, I can die now.” I finally made an artwork I’m totally proud of. I know it’s great, and that’s an incredibly rare experience as an artist. I didn’t have the same feeling with other projects. I’ve never had that simple, “yeah, this is brilliant. I’m very happy with this.” In many ways, Music & Clowns was the easiest film I’ve ever made, because there was 30 years of research that went into it.

Open Workshop Residency

Write up by Martina Scarpelli from November 3, 2022

How do you ethically represent a group you are not a member of?

With the help of British autistic participants, filmmaker and PhD candidate Alex Widdowson reimagines the way we represent neurodiversity in animated documentary films.

Divergent Minds (working title) is a feature length animated documentary about the neurodiversity paradigm, autism representation, and collaborative film practice, featuring four autistic participants and the director. Throughout a series of interviews, the film investigates how non-member status can make you blind to the emergence of problematic representations, such as stereotypes, and how these issues emerge unconsciously.

In his research and through his films Alex developed methods to mitigate the risks associated with representing minority groups. Methods including a focus on collaboration, the sharing of power and the use of animation for visualization of interviews. Crucially, animated documentary, unlike its live action counterpart, is a modular production process, where the images are created after interviews. This allows for the director and participants to negotiate how to best approach their representation. If these conversations are also recorded, they can be fed back into the narrative of the film. This collaborative reflexive cycle empowers the participants, reveals to the audience their evolving relationships with the director, and forces the filmmaker to acknowledge and address their ignorance and unconscious bias.

Alex Widdowson is currently attending the Open Workshop residency, working on a 60-minute animatic edit, build from the first round of interviews with his participants. His latest short film “Drawing on Autism” was recently released online and serves as a proof of concept for his current work. With a little irony, the film is a thoughtful exploration of how easily unconscious bias can emerge in animated documentary practice, while highlighting the pros and cons of using the medium to explore factual narratives.

You can watch it here: https://vimeo.com/alexwiddowson/drawing-on-autism

Drawing on Autism is available online

Director’s statement:
Drawing on Autism is an investigation into the ethics of representation in animated documentaries. Although I am neurodivergent, I’m not autistic, so when working with my anonymous participant, an autistic friend, I needed to be mindful of well-rehearsed and problematic autism tropes. These tropes seem to say more about the desires and needs of neurotypical audiences or filmmakers than they do about the autistic subjects. Moreover, animation presents a distinct set of ethical dilemmas. Without the mechanical indifference of a camera, the act of observation is substituted for expressive or symbolic representation. A mode of representation where the artist is responsible for how the documentary participant looks, where they appear, and what they do. Through collaborative feedback I attempt to share these responsibilities with my participant, while making use of positional and textual reflexivity to equip my audiences with the information they need to scrutinise my documentary interventions.
– Alex Widdowson

Aeon.co was kind enough to repost the film with the following article:

An animator wonders: can you ever depict someone without making them a caricature?

The UK filmmaker Alex Widdowson crafts short animations that explore psychology, personality and neurodiversity. In Drawing on Autism, Widdowson considers the complex ethics of his work. Speaking with the Autistic man at the centre of his latest animated project, Widdowson wonders if he can ever animate him in a way that doesn’t reduce him to a caricature or otherwise misrepresent him. Is he being careful to the point of paranoia? Or does, perhaps, his exacting internal vigilance ultimately improve his work? As their conversation unfolds, Widdowson pivots between animation styles as if to comment on his own uncertainty. From this self-referential structure, an intricate, revealing and often funny portrait of the two men at its centre arises. Through his construction, Widdowson also crafts a thoughtful meditation on broader, and often controversial, questions of representation in entertainment and the arts.

Awards and Accolades:
Winner – UK Research & Innovation: Research in Film Awards 2021 – Best Doctoral and Early Career Film
Winner – Rising of Lucitania AnimaDoc Film Festival 2022 – Best AnimaDoc Blue Ribend Award (Student Jury)
Nominated – Edinburgh International Film Festival 2022 – Norman McLaren Award for Best British Animation
Nominated – UK Research & Innovation: Research in Film Awards 2021 – Best Animated Film

Official Selection:
Rhode Island International Film Festival 2021 (Premier)
Raindance 2021
Hot Springs Documentary Film Festival 2021
New Orleans Film Festival 2021
Berlin Festival of Animation 2021
Spark Animation 2021
Factual Animation Film Festival 2021
Montreal International Animation Festival 2021
Big Cartoon Festival 2021
London Short Film Festival 2022
Fargo Film Festival 2022
Cinemagic ON THE PULSE Short Film Festival 2022
Edinburgh International Film Festival 2022

Directed, produced, and animated by Alex Widdowson
Sound design and music by Vicky Freund
Additional animation by Ciara Kerr
Additional art direction by Dan Castro
Made with support from Autism through Cinema, Queen Mary University of London, and the Wellcome Trust
Alex Widdowson © 2021

Science Gallery interview about Music & Clowns

On the 15th May 2022 I was interviewed by Dr Gareth M. Thomas, Sociologist at Cardiff University, about my film Music & Clowns (2018). This was organised by Science Gallery Bengaluru, part of their #PSYCHE online exhibition.

you can watch the full film here:

The Gaze: Psychoanalysis, Ideology, and Representation

My primary interest in writing about cinematic theories of the Gaze is to establish how various forms of looking are manifesting in my own animated documentary practice. While traditionally this discourse is organised around spectatorship and not practice, I aim to relate the various theories of the cinematic gaze to the actions, decisions and assumptions required for filmmaking in order to influence spectators.

My research explores the representation of autistic participants in animated documentaries that I create. Despite not being autistic I am neurodivergent in various ways and have developed a strong allegiance to the neurodiversity paradigm of understanding psychological and neurological forms of difference. I intend to investigate how the theoretical Gaze may be useful for understanding how my position and ideology manifest in film, how audiences may be interpolated into these perspectives and to what extent I have control over this process.

I am equally interested in what Gaze theory means for animation; a medium in which the filmmaker utterly controls how the characters appear, behave and interact; a medium with no physical constraints on the way the filmmaker orchestrates and filters reality through mimesis, stylisation and invention. There is a limitless potential for how I could construct the mode of looking through mise-en-scène and through the interactions between characters that I perform as an animator. Through this frame by frame control of each aspect of the image, animation has the potential to be a powerful vehicle for propaganda as well as unconscious projection.  However, it is beyond the remit of this article to fully expound the intersection of animation, documentary, and psychoanalysis. First, I must explore how the Gaze has been used in film theory and evaluate its relevance to my animated documentary practice.


Within film theory, conceptions of the gaze were established in the 1970’s by psychoanalytic film theorists, Jean-Louis Baudry, Raymond Bellour, and Christian Metz, who related the experienced of cinema viewing to Lacan’s theorisation of the Mirror stage, an illusory encounter that starts when the child first sees themselves in the mirror and is deceived into feeling a sense of complete self-identity (McGowen 2007: 2). According to early Lacanian film theorists the cinematic spectator identifies with the events on the screen in the way the child develops the illusion of coherent self-identity through the encounter with one’s reflection (ibid.). Metz wrote ‘The spectator is absent from the screen as perceived, but also (the two things inevitably go together) present there and even ‘all-present’ as perceiver. At every moment I am in the film by my look’s caress’ (Metz 1982: 54). These Lacanian film theorists were able to connect the illusory qualities of film, specifically the spectator’s false identification with the film, to the process through which ideological interpellation takes place. i.e. the adoption of social behaviours and identities presented through films that correlate to hegemonic social structures and ideologies (McGowen 2007:1-2). Baudry ties these various threads together neatly: ‘The arrangement of the different elements—projector, darkened hall, screen—in addition to reproducing in a striking way the mise-en-scène of Plato’s cave . . . reconstructs the situation necessary to the release of the ‘mirror stage’ discovered by Lacan.’ (Baudry 1985: 539). This invocation of Plato’s cave firmly positions the film theorist at a vantage point from which they can reveal the illusions of cinema and their ideological power over a population.

From a Lacanian perspective these authors are arguing that the cinematic image resides in and perpetuates the Imaginary order, one of three organising realms with which humans grapple. The Imaginary order deals with the function of imagery and illusion, often working to mask the presence of the other two orders, the Symbolic and the Real. Whereas the Imaginary order is what we see, the Symbolic order is the collection of organising elements and forces within our world, in other words, language, social structures and ideology. At this early stage in Lacan’s research, he had yet to fully develop his theorisation of the Real, but at its essence it is that which exists beyond the possibilities of perception and symbolic organisation. It is the traumatic threat of what exists beyond what we can see, understand, or articulate. Its existence can be inferred through the inconsistencies and failures of ideology (McGowen 2007: 3).

These early Lacanian film theorists identified cinema with the Imaginary order, demonstrating that it was an illusory force which allowed spectators to enjoy narratives by inviting them to take part in temporary fantasies. However, with their critical distance the theorist task was to pull back the curtains of the Imaginary order to reveal the Symbolic order, the ideologies that orient these shared fantasies into predetermined modes for living one’s life or organising a society.

Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema

Laura Mulvey in her seminal essay Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema (1975) developed a feminist stance based on this psychoanalytic perspective on spectatorship and the various forms of looking that take place within the cinematic experience. She argued that in classic Hollywood films there is an interplay between three sets of looks that align with the coordinates of phallocentric ideology, a synonym for patriarchy: [1] the look of the camera which is typically under the control of a male director, [2] the look of the male characters, who are typically active agents in the progression of the plot and [3] the look of the audience from the dark comfort of the cinema, enjoying the activity of the male actors and the sexualised presentation of the female actors (1975: 17). It is particularly telling how the camera often simulates the perspective of the male protagonists looking at female characters, who are themselves presented as passive and sexualised. These encounters with female characters often function as rest stops for the male protagonist as they journey through the plot. 

Mulvey observed that within the mechanisms of classic Hollywood cinema audiences were assumed to be, or prioritised as, male. Non-male viewers were left to either identify with the passivity of the female supporting roles or they could temporarily identify with the activity of the male character. In other words, women were given no other option but to be interpellated within the ideological system of patriarchy. Mulvey described the Male Gaze to be the phenomenon of expression and interpolation of patriarchal ideology, through this three-way matrix of cinematic looking. She relied on Lacan’s theory of the Mirror Stage to account for the diverse audience members misrecognising themselves within the cinematic experience (1975: 9-10).

What I find useful to take from Mulvey is the formulation of Gaze showing the filmmaker already interpolated within ideologies. These ideological beliefs will manifest in the Symbolic organisation of the film, masked by Imaginary field of the visual. Both cinematic aesthetics and character performances reflect these ideologies, along with the “ideal” audience the director is attempting to appeal to. As such the process of looking, from the position of spectator, interpolates each spectator into the Symbolic order of patriarchy, whether they are male or not. The Gaze is, according to Mulvey, the invisible Symbolic order, present within the Imaginary dominated field of vision which organises the way the filmmaker chooses to create or capture images and directs the actors, while also emerging in the finished film as a captivating force that organises the audience’s method of looking by predetermining visual pleasure.

If a feminist directs a film one would expect they would construct an artefact that reflects feminist ideologies. I have been told anecdotally that one does not need to be a woman to be a feminist, one simply needs to educate themselves to a sufficient extend that they raise their consciousness. Therefore, a man could theoretically execute the feminist Gaze if he had sufficiently internalised this ideology. I am intrigued firstly by the question of whether this level of ideological investment could be reached without lived experience of being a woman. Surely some aspects of this man’s unconscious activity will preserve internalised patriarchy. Secondly, and perhaps more importantly, if a man was able somehow to execute a feminist Gaze, would this be recognised as authentically feminist, i.e. how important is the alignment between identity (Ego) and ideology, to inspire authenticity?  I feel there is good justification for scepticism, as without lived experience of being a woman under patriarchy, a man would be left with a somewhat academic understanding of oppression, and their own status within this system of power may still leave them vulnerable to ideological blind spots. These questions will be explored at greater length in a future post on positionality. 

The essence of what Mulvey is doing in her essay is identifying the illusory power that cinema has over its spectators, no matter who they are. However, through the use of psychoanalytic tools she shows how the Imaginary order can be lifted to reveal a hidden ideological structure, the Symbolic order. In this formulation the film theorist is analyst, the spectator analysand, and the film dreamlike materials to be picked apart. Interestingly the analysis reveals insights, not into the spectator, nor does it say much about the director other than the expectation that both are fully interpolated within the symbolic order of patriarchy. 

Oppositional Gaze

Despite Mulvey’s success and good intentions, a wave of criticism developed around her conception of the Gaze, an example of which is Bell Hooks essay “The Oppositional Gaze” (2014). According to Hooks, Mulvey overlooked her own positioning within racist hierarchies when formulating a theory of spectatorship. Hooks contests that ‘many feminist film critics continue to structure their discourse as though it speaks about “women” when in actuality it speaks only about white women.’ (2014: 123). Hooks goes on to argue that Black men are interpolated within white notions of Male Gaze successfully as it gave them an opportunity to look at white women within the safety of the dark cinema space, an act that would have otherwise gone punished throughout American history (Ibid. 118). Where as ‘black female spectators have had to develop looking relations within a cinematic context that constructs our presence as absence, that denies the “body” of the black female so as to perpetuate white supremacy and with it a phallocentric spectatorship where the woman to be looked at and desired is “white.”’(Ibid.). Hooks calls this specific looking relation the Oppositional Gaze, a way of looking defined by involuntary critical distance. A certain enjoyment that comes from unpicking the racist and sexist ideology’s manifest in a film. ‘Watching movies from a feminist perspective, Mulvey arrived at that location of disaffection that is the starting point for many black women approaching cinema within the lived harsh reality of racism’ (2014: 125). In Lacanian terms, Hooks is arguing that Mulvey and her predecessors have over emphasised the all-encompassing and uniformed illusory force of the cinema over spectators. These White theorists did not see beyond their own positions within the Symbolic order when applying these psychoanalytic tools, rendering their own subject positions as universal, and female Blackness as unaccounted for or invisible. Hooks expands the theorization of spectatorship by highlighting the plurality of experiences among spectators.  She illuminates how people in privileged positions may be unintentionally tying into systems of oppression by omitting any acknowledgement of how the topic at hand, e.g. feminism, intersects with other powers structures, such as race.

Hook’s Oppositional Gaze makes me mindful about how class, race, gender, sexuality, etc. [1] may intersect with my future participants’ experience of autism, [2] may inform the way in which I represent my participants and [3] will inform a plurality of interpretive positions held by the various spectators of my work. 

Hook’s work has made me think about how likely I am, as a practitioner, to produce films that are complicit with hegemonic ideologies which I theoretically oppose, but do little to address, because they either benefit me or do not negatively impact me. For example, I identify as middle class, and I live in Britain, a country with sharp class divisions. If in the process of making a short film about autism, I was to choose to edit out dialogue that relates to access to education, housing and jobs, because I felt that it deviated too far from the theme of autism, I would be glossing over an important intersectional issue. This in-itself is an act of complicity with a Symbolic order that suppresses class struggle. Either consciously or unconsciously, I would be averting my spectator’s look from financial, educational, and employment inequalities which might shape the lived experience of autism. Looking back at my practice so far in this PhD, I have made one film that features a single autistic participant collaborator who is cis-gendered white male with a similar level of education to myself. It is my ambition to develop a film with multiple autistic participants. I believe it would be problematic if each participant occupied the same subject position within society.  

From a Lacanian perspective, Hooks is arguing that Mulvey’s totalising conception of the Imaginary order, having the power to interpolate each and every spectator in to the Symbolic order hidden behind the Gaze, falls short of accounting for intersectional issues that position individuals differently in relation to the Symbolic order. Mulvey’s reading of psychoanalysis is unable to account for the distinct experience of the individual spectator.

The Transgender Gaze

Returning to the conception of cinema aesthetics manifesting ideology, Judith Halberstam, analyses the film Boys Don’t Cry (1999)in her article on the Transgender Gaze (2001). In this film, the fictional adaptation of a true story in which, a teenage trans man, Brandon, engages in a romantic relationship with a cis woman, Lana, before being brutally outed, raped and murdered by two cis men, Tom and John.

Halberstam provided an example where multiple modes of looking – male, female and transgender –were each able to manifest in a single cinematic scene, demonstrating that cinematic Gaze can be a fluid construction and is not necessarily anchored by the identity of the director, in this instance Kimberly Peirce, who identifies as queergender (Dry 2019). Halberstam points out how the looking of each character is manifest in a scene where John and Tom force Brandon to expose his genitalia, while failing to make Lana look. ‘The brutality of their action here is clearly identified as a violent mode of looking, and the film identifies the male gaze with that form of knowledge which resides in the literal’ (2001: 295). In addition to the persecutory male look, the supportive female look of the lover is manifest as a point of view shot of her looking away. Finally, Brandon’s mode of looking is manifest as an exchange of looks between the protagonist’s naked sexed body, and the male gendered third person perspective of the same character. ‘In this shot/reverse-shot sequence between the castrated and the transgender Brandons, the transgender gaze is constituted as a look divided within itself, a point of view that comes from (at least) two places at the once one clothed and one naked.’ (Ibid.)

Halberstam, compared to Mulvey and Hooks, places little emphasis on spectatorship in this short article. Unlike the patriarchal films analysed in Mulvey’s essay, Boys Don’t Cry undermines the pervasive and potent role of heteronormative ideology. Halberstam sees this film as a radical departure from the hegemonic Symbolic organisation of gender and sexuality. Instead, the filmmaker aestheticizes queer ideology, manifest through the performative modes of looking in the film, each presenting contrasting perspectives on gender and sexuality.

In my most recent animated documentary, Drawing on Autism (2021), I worked collaboratively with an autistic participant. In the film we meet on screen and, while I execute labour involved in animation, the representations of the participant are informed by their appearance and words. These representations are either authorised by them or subject to their scrutiny later in the film. What I am unclear about is whether this mode of collaboration is precise enough to allow me to ethically manifest my own and my participant’s modes of looking. Despite a collaborative ethos, am I totally in control of the modes of looking present in this film, and my participant happens to be fine with how I represent him.

My current insights tell me that Drawing on Autism does show my participant looking, and being looked at by me, but as I am utterly in control of his animated character’s actions and context, the film is unmistakably a product of my own process of looking. However, I have been researching autism in the context of the social model of disability. This ideological stance is best summarised by the goals of the neurodiversity movement, and I can feel over the past 18 months how this ideology has shaped how I see autism, in addition to my own neurodivergent status. So, while it may be unreasonable to suggest that this film presents the Autistic Gaze, no matter how collaborative the film is, it is possible to suggest the film is a manifestation of the neurodiversity ideology and thus the Neurodivergent Gaze. It is still unclear to me if I would have been able to reach this ideological position without myself being neurodivergent.

The Neurotypical Gaze

Drawing on Autism was developed in opposition to what John-James Laidlow calls the “Neurotypical Gaze” (2020). Laidlow presents the perspectives of Mulvey, Hooks and Halberstam before exploring issues relating to the representation of autism. Specifically Laidlow addresses the association autism in the media has with young, white, maleness; the idea that trapped inside the autistic body is a neurotypical true self;  the romantic conflation of autistic difference and childlike innocence; the over representation of autistic savants, a autistic person who in the eyes of neurotypicals makes up for their difference through compensatory talents; and the tactic of not ever naming a character who is coded as autistic as actually autistic. These tropes, while not explicitly connected to the mechanism of looking by the camera or the other characters, do appeal to an assumed neurotypical audience and reflect the medical ideology that positions autism as a developmental disorder, a deviation from an idealised norm (2020).

Laidlow discusses what would be called evocation within animated documentary discourse (Hones Roe 2011: 227), simulations of subjective experiences of autism, specifically moments of sensory overload, rendered through point of view footage combined with distorting visual effects. Laidlow states: ‘Even with the relatively few autistic characters we are shown, neurotypical people try to control the way we see and look at the world.’ Laidlow describes the misguided futility of these evocations as ‘attempt[s] at disability simulation to raise awareness, rather than just listening to the experiences of autistic people and trying to empathise with them’ (2020).

My own research into animated documentary practice has shown me that the majority of evocative animated documentary’s that attempt to represent cognitive difference are unethical as they mislead the audience into trusting what they are seeing is based on authentic insights into the participants subjectivity, when more often than not it is the filmmakers’ othering look, masquerading as the look of the participant. The exception to this is Samantha Moore’s collaborative feedback cycle which allows the neurodivergent participants to verify the veracity of animated representations of their subjective brain-state phenomena (Moore 2015).

Laidlow’s video essay is the logical extension of the work started by the early psychoanalytic film theorists. Mulvey in particular set out an approach that connects the various acts of looking that take place in the production and reception of a film to the ideological structures that inform it. Laidlow also builds upon a more fluid conception of Gaze presented by Halberstam, as a mode of simulated looking, evocation or affective performance, each of which relates to ideology masked behind an Imaginary illusion. However, with each stage in this progression, the topics presented have more to do with matters of identity politics and representation than psychoanalysis.

Contemporary theorisation of Lacan and the Gaze

Mulvey and her predecessors’ conception of the Gaze argues for the spectator’s visual experience of cinema being dominated by a deceptive encounter with the Imaginary order, one of illusory identification, functioning to hide the Symbolic order, the architecture of ideology. The logical conclusion that Mulvey reached was to either maintain conscious distance when watching a film or make films that promote consciousness through Brechtian distancing devises or reflexivity, as demonstrated by Mulvey and Peter Wollen’s film, Riddles of the Sphinx (1977), (McGowen 2007:15). According to Todd McGowen, these approaches represent an abandonment of the psychoanalytic project: one must remain conscious and fortify the ego, while attempting to supress unconscious enjoyment. It strips psychoanalysis of its power to develop insight through examining unconscious activity (ibid.) and is another way for the ego to ‘avoid the Real of the Gaze’ (2007:14).

McGowen explains this phenomenon by pointing out that early Lacanian film theorists had limited access to Lacan’s work beyond his Mirror Stage essay (2007: 4). Through research into Lacan’s full body of work McGowen illuminates that this conception of the Gaze is incomplete. It was developed by Lacan in a way that associates the Gaze closely with encroachments of the order of the Real, that which exists beyond symbolisation. ‘As a manifestation of the real rather than of the imaginary, the gaze marks a disturbance in the functioning of ideology rather than its expression’ (2007: 7).

McGowen reorients the cinematic Gaze as the invisible but proactive distortion of the visible realm during the process of spectatorship.

‘The gaze exists in the way that the spectator’s perspective distorts the field of the visible, thereby indicating the spectator’s involvement in a scene from which the spectator seems excluded. It makes clear the effect of subjective activity on what the subject sees in the picture, revealing that the picture is not simply there to be seen and that seeing is not a neutral activity.’ (2007:7).

From this contemporary reading of Lacan, the Gaze is a manifestation of the spectator’s loss of mastery over the image, however, rather than this relating to an Imaginary masking of the Symbolic, this lack of mastery is unconsciously connected to our own death and our inability to comprehend or control it, i.e. the Real (ibid.). Referring to Lacan’s expounding of the Gaze through Hans Holbein’s portrait The Ambassadors (1533), McGowen explains the Gaze as the distorted image of a skull within the painting. ‘Even when a manifestation of the gaze does not make death evident directly like this, it nonetheless carries the association insofar as the gaze itself marks the point in the image at which the subject is completely subjected to it. The gaze is the point at which the subject loses its subjective privilege and becomes wholly embodied in the object’ (2007:7).

McGowen uses the subjective encounter with the image to show how this conception of the Gaze can account for the problems of different experiences of spectatorship and group identity raised by Hooks (ibid). The Gaze is the mechanism with which each image is perceived uniquely by each viewer, as this shows how the spectators’ unconscious desire is incorporated into how they look at and absorbed the film. 

The Gaze functions as the object cause of desire, (object petit a), i.e. the Gaze is the hidden object within our vision that ignites our desire, propelling us along the trajectory of the scopic drive, in search of this unattainable partial object.  Attempting to capture and contain this invisible blot in the screen’s content is a futile task but through its pursuit we may come close to experiencing the nature of our unconscious desires. Experiencing the tension between what we unconsciously desire and what we thought we wanted can erupt in a kind of traumatic enjoyment (Jouissance) (2007:15).

The Gaze and our unconscious desire, by definition, elude our conscious comprehension, however, the experience of Jouissance is a visceral conscious phenomenon. As cinematic spectators, we can use moments of Jouissance to work back to detect the presence of the Gaze and it’s adjacent position to the Real. Through these traumatic glimpses, we can hypothesise structural inconsistencies within the Symbolic order where the Real is erupting, i.e. ideological weaknesses (ibid.).

McGowen argues that in order to analyse these moments of jouissance present in the experience of cinematic identification, we must first fully invest in the phantasmatic experience of cinema. Only through uncritical identification with the film universe will we be offered glimpses of the Real and the insights they provide into the fragile nature of the Symbolic order. McGowen exceeds the ambitions of early Lacanian film theorist by suggesting that psychoanalytic tools can not only illuminate hegemonic ideological domination but provide insights into how films can be used to erode it (2007: 15).

The Gaze and Animated Documentary Practice

What does a developed understanding of Lacan’s theory of the Gaze mean for me as a practitioner using animated documentary to represent autism? I see three possibilities:

[1] I could continue to follow Mulvey’s example by employing Brechtian distancing devices to activate spectators of my film into thinking critically about the ideological dialectic between the Neurodiversity paradigm and the medical model of autism, both of which will contribute to the Symbolic organisation of the film. This could be a productive means of steering the audience away from the traumatic Real which would threaten the stability of the Neurodiversity ideology. This consciousness raising approach to structuring a film reflects the identity focused organisation of the Neurodiversity movement, one that leaves little room for universal theories of the unconscious and resists psychoanalysis following a century of problematic therapeutic interventions with autistics and their families (Robert 2011).

[2] I could place more emphasis on the likelihood that I will through the film express internalised neuro-ableist biases. Even as someone who does occupy a neurodivergent position, my ignorance of the affective reality of autistic experience may align me closer to “neurotypical” hegemony than the neurodiversity paradigm. If this is true, then I could diminish my own power within the film production by seeking to involve my autistic participants as much as possible in every aspect of creation when it comes to the development and production of these animated documentaries. Through cocreation, there is a greater chance that any problematic representations that I create as expressions of my own unconscious bias, will be flagged by my participants who are likely to be more highly tuned to these issues. Furthermore, the final animated documentary will be a sublimation of multiple subjects’ conscious and unconscious activity. As a collaboration this film would present an aggregation of the ideological forces at play within myself and my autistic participant collaborators.

[3] I could acknowledge that a pro-neurodiversity film will to an extend result in Imaginary identification on the part of the spectator. At face value, this is a powerful way to interpolate the audience into seeing disability through the social model i.e. documentary as propaganda. However, I must anticipate the risk that some spectators may experience Jouissance when watching this film, and thus have revealed to them possible weaknesses in this ideology. A film about neurodiversity must on some level offer a critique of the medical model of autism. It may be worthwhile experimenting with methods for curating within a single film both circumstances in which traumatic Jouissance may flourish and where it may be diffused. If this is successfully identified, Jouissance can be encouraged when portraying the medical model, followed by a swich in mode discouraging its emergence when addressing the neurodiversity paradigm, that way jouissance is directed like an ideological weapon. A starting point for experimentation would be to employ Brechtian distancing devices while arguing for neurodiversity, this would result in the fortification of the ego and the defence of said ideology within the Symbolic order, before switching to a more fanciful excessive and traumatic poeticism while critiquing the medical model of autism, that would hopefully promote Jouissance and allow for insights in to the ideological weakness of seeing Autism as a disorder. What would evidently be lost is the illusion of balance and ‘discourse of sobriety’ that characterises the documentary canon (Nichols 1991: 50).    

I believe animated documentary is dynamic enough as a medium to explore all three of these methods within the same film. The very fact that the participants are drawn helps stimulate illusory identification (McCloud 1993, 31), while total control of the image and the slow pace of production gives time to reflect on the nature of the medium, stimulating the inclusion of reflexive devices. Furthermore, the iterative process of constructing the audio edit, style frames and animatic before entering production provides ample room for consultation and collaboration with participants. 

I have come to see Mulvey’s use of psychoanalytic tools as limited and perhaps even misleading, but non-the-less useful. They were a means to an end. And end that was thoroughly productive and emancipatory in its far-reaching influence. However, the concept of the Gaze has evolved in popular discourse far enough away from Lacan’s intentions, that it could be better replaced by the rhetoric of representation. That said, I am interested in continuing my theoretical engagement with Lacan. His insights will; [1] help me to analyse my own unconscious activity as a filmmaker, [2] help me predict how spectators will respond to my work and [3] provide the basic model for understanding discourse with another. Drawing influence from Piotrowska (2013), I believe there are great similarities and problematic differences between the therapeutic and the documentary relationships. A fuller understanding of this is essential for what is ethically at stake in my practice.


BAUDRY, J.-L. 1985. Basic effects of the cinematographic apparatus. Movies and methods, 2.

DRY, J. 2019. As
‘Boys Don’t Cry’ Joins National Film Registry, Kimberly Peirce Addresses Its
Complicated History. IndiWire Film [Online]. Available from: https://www.indiewire.com/2019/12/kimberly-peirce-interview-boys-dont-cry-transgender-1202196536/ [Accessed 12 Dec 2019.

HALBERSTAM, J. 2001. The transgender gaze in Boys Don’t Cry. Screen, 42, 294-298.

HONESS ROE, A. 2011. Absence, excess and epistemological expansion: Towards a framework for the study of animated documentary. Animation, 6, 215-230.

HOOKS, B. 2014. Black looks: Race and representation, Routledge.

The Neurotypical Gaze, 2020. Directed by LAIDLOW, J.-J.

MCCLOUD, S. 1993. Understanding comics: The invisible art. Northampton, Mass.

MCGOWAN, T. 2007. Real Gaze, The: Film Theory after Lacan.

METZ, C. 1982. Psychoanalysis and cinema: the imaginary signifer, London, Macmillan.

MOORE, S. 2015. Out of sight: using animation to document perceptual brain states. Loughborough University.

MULVEY, L. & PLEASURE, V. 1975. Narrative Cinema’. Screen, 16, 6-18.

Riddles of the Sphinx, 1977. Directed by MULVEY, L. & WOLLEN, P.: British Film Institute.

NICHOLS, B. 1991. Representing reality : issues and concepts in documentary, Bloomington, Indiana University Press.

Boys Don’t Cry, 1999. Directed by PEIRCE, K. USA: Fox Searchlight Pictures.

PIOTROWSKA, A. 2013. Psychoanalysis and ethics in documentary film, Routledge.

The Wall or psychoanalysis put to the test on autism, 2011. Directed by ROBERT, S. France.

Agnieska Piotrowska’s PhD thesis Psychoanalysis and Ethics in documentary Film

Agnieska Piotrowska, in her PhD thesis, Psychoanalysis and Ethics in documentary Film (2012),  argues that the bond that develops between a filmmaker and participant is akin to transference love, a psychoanalytic term that describes an attachment that develops between analyst and analysand, determined by the power dynamics in the relationship. Piotrowska argues the intense experience of documentary production typically culminates in a betrayal where, unlike analysis, a film is produced that is largely under the control of the director and thus reflects their fantasies and desires as opposed to the participants. The film is then irrevocably released to the public often to the horror of the participant. While Piotrowska does not provide a solution to this dilemma, her extensive analysis of reflexivity in documentary practice is helpful in addressing broader ethical concerns.

Is documentary unethical?

Piotrowska refers to Krzysztof Kieślowski a Polish director who pivoted in his career from documentary to fiction, reportedly for ethical reasons (2012: 104). Kieślowski wrote ‘…I am frightened of real tears. In fact, I don’t know if I have the right to photograph them.’ (in Cousins & MacDonald 1988: 316).

Slavoj Žižek (2006) quotes Kieślowski’s words in his analysis of the documentary form arguing that it is fundamentally predatory, and subsequently unethical. He characterises the genera as ‘emotional pornography’ (Žižek 2006: 30). Žižek evokes a ‘No trespassers!’ sign and proclaims that to avoid ‘pornographic obscenity’ tender subjects should only be approached via fiction (Žižek 2006: 31).

Piotrowska suggests, Žižek may have drawn too bold a conclusion from his reading of Kieślowski’s documentary work. Žižek bases his conclusion partly on a scene in Kieślowski’s reflections on his 1974 documentary First Love, in which a farther cries after his first child is born (Piotrowska 2012: 106). However, Kieślowski’s later account of ethical concerns in his documentary work was more closely connected to the necessity and inescapabilty of manipulating reality through the documentary process. This is in contrast to Žižek’s explicit focus on the unwieldly intrusion into the intimate lives of documentary participants (Kieślowski & Stok 1993: 64).

Žižek and Kieślowski are referring to different formulations of unethical behaviour when analysing the filmmaker’s decision to abandon documentary practice. I have come to refer to the primary commitments for a documentary filmmaker as the documentary ethics trichotomy, based on Jay Ruby’s list of moral responsibilities that every documentary director must balance:

‘(1) the image maker’s personal moral contract to produce an image that is somehow a true reflection of their intention in making the image in the first place-to, use a cliché, it is being true to one’s self; (2) the moral obligation of the producer to his or her subjects; and (3) the moral obligation of the producer to the potential audience’ (2005: 211).

Žižek explicitly refers to the director neglecting their duty of care towards the participant, which includes the right to privacy (Pryluck 2005: 200). Thus, Žižek conceives Kieślowski over emphasising his commitment to his audience, or in other words strictly adhering to the public’s right to know the truth. It may also be argued that Žižek is suggesting that Kieślowski over played his commitment to his own film by channelling an obscene and intrusive desire to capture compelling footage.

This subtly contrasts Kieślowski’s own conception of his unethical activity. He clearly identifies regret and unease regarding the over emphasis on his own ethical commitment to his documentary practice, at the expense of both a breach in his commitment to factual reporting for his audience and possibly the exploitation of participants in order to do so.

Žižek’s misreading of Kieślowski’s motivations for leaving documentary undermines the argument that documentary is a predatory practice. While Kieślowski shared these concerns to an extent, he was focused on his misleading of the audience and the inability to create objective artefacts for displaying truth.

Calvin Pryluck identifies a key insight into how to balance two poles of the documentary ethics trichotomy. The participants right to privacy and their control over the outcome of the film should be proportional to their power and standing in society, the less powerful they are, the more their rights should be exercised. The greater the participants standing in society the greater the public’s right to intrude in their lives and the less influence they should have over the final film (Ruby 2005: 204-205).

While the participant’s influence over the outcome of the film does have a baring on the director’s moral commitment to their work, there is no variable within this formulation that indicates how a director should understand their commitment to themselves, i.e. what circumstances would affect a director to question their own desires.  This is where Piotrowska’s psychoanalytic insights into the nature of the director’s unconscious desire become useful.

Before moving on to Piotrowska’s psychoanalytic reading of the documentary participant relationship, I would argue that animated documentary can resist what Žižek characterises as ‘pornographic obscenity’ (Žižek 2006: 30-31). The intrusive capturing of images would be replaced by the careful reconstruction of mimetic, stylised or evocative images, each of which could be approved by the participant before entering production. Similarly, Kieslowski’s concerns regarding the manipulation of reality at the expense of the audience’s reception of truth would be mitigated by an animated image which is recognisably constructed and makes no false claim to be representative of anything other than an impression of reality by the artist.


The psychoanalysis metaphor for documentary practice

Elizabeth Cowie (2011) argues there is a tension in all documentary practice between the ‘scientific recording of what one sees and somehow the desire to give it meaning and perhaps make it more beautiful.’ She refers to these as ‘contradictory desires’ (2011: 2). Cowie also identifies unconscious desires present in the makeup of documentary production, shifting the nature of the debate from ‘a discourse of sobriety’ (Nichols 1991: 4, Nichols 2010: 36), something akin to scientific investigation, to a ‘discourse of desire’ (Cowie in Gaines 1999: 25) in which the director is pursuing and delivering pleasure as well as knowledge to their audience (Piotrowska 2012: 91).  Michael Renov extends this argument calling documentary a ‘discourse of jouissance’, suggesting the filmmaker’s unconscious desires are likely to be exercised through the practice amidst attempts to represent reality (Renov 2004: 23).

In stark contrast to Nichols’ discourse of sobriety and the scientific objectivity that it connotes, Piotrowska argues the nature of the relationship between filmmaker and participant is a space of psychoanalytic turbulence in which both parties express unconscious desires, typically in the form of transferential love (Piotrowska, 2012: 74). Transference is not a phenomenon exclusive to the practice of psychoanalysis. When Jacque Lacan drew his own conclusions about the nature of transference in a psychoanalytic context, he used examples from outside of the clinic, including the dynamics between teachers and students (Piotrowska 2012: 72).

‘It is the idea of the illusion of knowledge inducing desire, which makes transference relevant in interrogating relationships outside the clinic too – in education in particular but also in other situations which feature a potential imbalance of power’ (Ibid.).

Lacan, however, does not insist that transference must be avoided, it is an inevitable phenomenon that should be embraced and accepted as a kind of love. A love that can be utilised as a tool in the psychoanalytic process (Ibid.: 73).

Piotrowska makes the connection between psychoanalysis and documentary explicit:

‘Documentary filmmakers often appear the perfect canvases on which to draw one’s emotions. Just like psychoanalyst, they listen, they try to stay ‘professional’ regardless of their drives, they attempt to hold on to their boundaries in order not to reveal too much of themselves to those about whom they make films. These very attempts of course make them perfect candidates for experiencing transference from those who they make films about.’ (ibid.: 74)

Piotrowska emphasizes that while there is an erotic subtext to transference it is not necessarily sexual in nature (ibid.: 79). It is instead a bond formed by one’s counterpart occupying a subject position that triggers unconscious desires in oneself. Lacan also makes no distinction between transference and countertransference, suggesting both the analysand and analyst are experiencing the same phenomena (ibid.: 72).

Piotrowska suggest another way in which documentary and Lacanian psychoanalysis are similar is that documentary does not attempt to remedy the problems in the lives of the participants. Lacanian analysis aims to develop understanding of an analysand’s unconscious activity rather than cure it (Piotrowska 2012: 56).

Piotrowska makes some compelling arguments as to why the relationship between filmmaker and documentary participant is akin to analyst and analysand. To support her argument she explores a number of case studies from her own documentary practice and analyses the relationship between Claude Lanzmann and Abraham Bomba during the production of Shoah (1985) (Piotrowska 2012: 208-212).

As Piotrowska illuminates the presence of transferential love as an inevitable factor in documentary production, it is the differences between filmmaking and psychoanalysis that expose the possible ethical dilemmas.

‘The point is not that the documentary encounter is ‘like’ psychotherapy or psychoanalysis; it is rather the exact opposite: through the structure of the encounter and powerful unconscious mechanisms a situation might arise leading to a profound ‘misrecognition’ on the part of the subject of the film and the filmmaker alike. A documentary encounter might feel like a special safe place in which one is listened to and even loved, but that private space will soon enough be turned into a public spectacle – a process which carries with it inherent dangers.’ (2012: 56)

Documentary filmmakers, while attempting to hold together professional boundaries, lack the frameworks for understanding and making use of transferential love. ‘Because these phenomena are not named in documentary film, they remain hidden and create confusion and sometimes hurt’ (Piotrowska 2012: 74).

What makes these circumstances even more concerning is that the more vulnerable you are as a participant the more susceptible you may be to desire the filmmaker’s attention and inferred insights. ‘The filmmaker in the society of spectacle, can in some circumstances become a bearer of a clear possibility for symbolising the potential subject’s relationship with the Real [the Lacanian term for the unsymbolised] and thus be particularly seductive for those whose traumas appear un-symbolisable’ (2012: 140). For example, it is possible that the trauma of the Holocaust contributed to Bomba developing a transferential relationship with Lanzmann.

According to Piotrowska, the completion of a documentary film typically culminates in various forms of betrayal.

‘Having agreed to take part in a documentary project, sometimes longed for it to come to being, having had complex fantasies about the film and the filmmaker, when the film is finished, the people in it mostly hate it. This phenomenon is so ubiquitous that the executives in broadcast television usually forbid the filmmakers to show their films to their subjects before the documentaries are screened.’ (2012: 216)

The participant has no say over how the film takes its form. As a result, the film reflects more closely the unconscious desires and fantasies of the filmmaker, rather than the participant. After seeing the film there is now no way to stop its release.

Without stating it explicitly, the specific problems Piotrowska has pointed out illuminate possible antidotes to what she considers common ethical failures in documentary practice. Transferential love may develop between filmmaker and participant, I have certainly felt a sense of bonding take place in many of the film’s I’ve directed. This must be acknowledged by the filmmaker as more than a convenient benefit and recognised as an ethical conflict. In accordance they should adjust their duty of care to match the possibility that they have seduced their participant into a nonsexual loving relationship and visa versa. By rendering this knowledge conscious, Piotrowska can help a director to examine the nature of their and their participant’s desires. As a result, a director can wield a greater consideration for the participants best interests and help keep in check the director’s commitment to their own creative vision.

As transference is likely to be proportional to the vulnerability of the participant, any adjustments in the power relations between filmmaker and participant, can be proportional to Pryluck’s suggestions regarding how to adjust one’s approach towards a participant according to their standing in society. For instance, if a participant is from a marginalised group they could be invited to collaborate in the edit and creative development of the documentary. This will shape a film so it reflects a negotiation between theirs and the director’s desires and fantasies. This opportunity would not be offered to someone who had much more power in society than the director, such as a politician, as they are less likely to fall victim to transference and the greater public interest in exposing their private life out ways their right to privacy. This approach should reduce the likely hood that vulnerable participants feel betrayed and helpless upon the release of the film.

I feel slightly uneasy about assuming a marginalised participant is unconsciously experiencing love for me based on my power to illuminate them and hear their story. It feels obscenely presumptuous. However, it is important to hold in one’s mined that Piotrowska is drawing attention to unconscious activity as appose to concrete realities. She has articulated in psychoanalytic terms, the ethical imbalance when working with someone where there is an inherent power imbalance. It is also worth noting that much of psychoanalysis can induce an uneasy effect if rendered too literally.



While Piotrowska does not allude to increased collaborative involvement with the participants as a possible antidote to the power imbalances that can result in transference, she does refer to reflexivity as a best practice quality of ethical documentary filmmaking. This is, in the first instance important because reflexivity encourages the filmmaker to self-scrutinise, leading to the illumination and negotiation of unconscious desires. Secondly, reflexivity allows for the audience to understand better the position from which the filmmaker is approaching the topic or participant. Thirdly, it can be used to encourage ethical engagement from audiences by forcing them to maintain a certain distance from the seductive qualities of the film.

In contrast to Nichols’ ‘discourse of sobriety’ (1991: 4, 2010: 36), Piotrowska conceives of documentary production, in part, as the product of a turbulent web of unconscious activity on the part of the director. ‘[Documentary filmmakers] mostly keep making different versions of the same film, perhaps unconsciously reworking some kind of trauma in a process of sublimation’ (2012: 68). According to Lacan, the psychoanalyst usually possesses some form of unconscious libidinal desire towards the analysand which must be rendered clear in their mind (Piotrowska 2012:72). ‘[This] is an important move as it dislodges the lingering stance in psychoanalysis of the psychoanalyst possessing all the power and solutions’ (Ibid.). Both the analyst and documentary filmmaker benefit from greater understanding of their own motivations and fallibility. Without self-reflexivity they would likely be trapped in cycles of behaviour that may be unethical. They could draw in their participants or analysands into an ill-defined dance in which repressed desires or traumas determine the terms of engagement.

From the perspective of the audience, there is a clear advantage to having as much insight into a filmmaker as possible when decoding how they have subjectively interpreted reality for the purposes of a documentary (Piotrowska 2012: 25).  As Julian Barnes puts it in his fiction writing, ‘we need to know the history of the historian in order to understand the version that is being put in front of us’ (2011:12).

Susan Scheibler drew a distinction between the ‘constative’ and ‘performative’ tensions within the documentary genre, the constative referring to knowledge that is objective and unchanging, and the performative, as emblematic of subjective perspectives (in Renov 1993: 137). Piotrowska points out that ‘performative’ can also mean a documentary team setting up events that will unfold on camera.  ‘This issue of the camera creating reality, which is not exactly staged but somehow impacted by the process itself, is also an important ethical issue in the genre – it is that notion too which bothered Krzysztof Kieślowski’ (Piotrowska 2012: 95). Even if the footage captured in a documentary production was a true reflection of “objective reality”, Piotrowska argues that it is much easier to manipulate the footage through editing than most audiences realised. ‘The spectator might have no idea how his or her perception has been altered through quite simple means: just cutting out a hesitation or a question could make an enormous difference to how you perceive the piece’ (2012: 95). Stella Bruzzi, echoes Scheibler in arguing that documentary is not a record of reality but rather a recording of a kind of ‘performance’ in the world (Bruzzi 2000: 3).

As an antidote to the performative manipulations of reality and the subjective undercurrent of the genre of documentary, Bruzzi identifies ‘performative documentary’, or what Nichols would call the participatory mode, in which the filmmaker enters the filmic frame as a participant (2001: 33).  The filmmaker’s onscreen presence illuminates a certain honesty about the subjectivity of the film text as opposed to an objective record of events as they would occur naturally (Bruzzi 2000: 155). Piotrowska refers to Nick Broomfield’s performative (or in Nichols terminology, participatory) documentaries as a key example of this practice.

‘He is dismantling the conventional documentary because, in his mind, it doesn’t work. His films are ‘voyages of discovery for him’ and he wants ‘to take the audience with him’ (Broomfield in Jones et al 2010: 30), thus empowering them. The point is the filmmaker’s desire to demonstrate in some way the process of the filmmaking.’ (Piotrowska 2012: 96).

This reflexive aesthetic has its roots in Bertolt Brecht’s radical theatre, specifically his Verfremdungseffekt (distancing effect), which ‘reveal the workings of the theatre in order to empower the spectator to question rather than just to have a pleasant experience… Brecht wanted the artifice of the theatre to be stripped down so that the spectator, rather than suspending her disbelief, could instead become a co-author of the performance.’ (Piotrowska 2012: 97-98).

Piotrowska connects this distancing effect in documentary with the psychoanalytic term ‘suture’ which describes the painful transition from the Imaginary into the Symbolic i.e. the uncomfortable intersection between the realm of senses and the realm of language and the other (2012: 105). Piotrowska uses suture ‘to describe the spectators’ rupture from the illusory identification with the screen to the realisation that it is but an illusion through a reminder that the frame of the screen frames the limit of the spectator’s experience’ (Ibid.). As such, distancing effects hopefully jolt the audience out of a passive role and into the poise of a critic.

According to Ruby’s trichotomy of ethical responsibilities documentary filmmakers must consider, reflexivity is a direct response to ‘the moral obligation of the producer to the potential audience’ (Ruby 2005: 211). By treating the audience as active thinking agents and equipping them with the material to decode the desires and prejudices present in the text, the filmmaker would have acted ethically towards the audience. Piotrowska concludes that ‘the method of cutting out the author/the filmmaker rather than inscribing him or her into the text, has produced the greatest deceptions in the history of documentary film’ (2012: 118).

In my own animated documentary practice I have started to follow Broomfield’s example by including myself and my microphones in the films I animate. It is important to me to expose to the audience how strange a scenario a documentary interview is. The added artificiality of the images being purposefully rendered as opposed to captured, further highlights to the audience how I have performed my interpretation of reality. It is also important for me to be clearly present as the directing force behind the film, so the audience can understand the origin of these interpretations. Including these reflexive commitments helps me examine my own conscious desires and prejudices. I am aware I will be held accountable by my audience. This in turn heightens my sense of concern for gaining a balance between the ethical demands of my participant, my audience, and my creative project.




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Cowie, E. (2011) Recording Reality, Desiring the Real. London & Minneapolis: University of Minnesotta Press.

Gaines, J. & Renov, M. (eds.) (1999) Collecting Visible Evidence. Minneapolis: University of Minnesotta Press.

Jones, C., Jolliffe, G. & Zinnes, A. (2010) The Guerilla Film Makers Handbook. The Ultimate Guide to Digital Filmmaking. London: Continuum.

Kieślowski, K. & Stok, D. (1993) Kieślowski on Kieślowski. Trans. by D. Stok. London: Faber & Faber.

Nichols, B. (1991) Representing Reality: Issues and Concepts in Documentary. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

Nichols, B. (2001) Introduction to Documentary. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

Nichols, B. (2010 [2001]) Introduction to Documentary. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

Parker, I. (2011) Lacanian Psychoanalysis: Revolutions in Subjectivity. London & New York: Routledge.

Pryluck, C. [1976] ‘Ultimately We Are All Outsiders: The Ethics of Documentary Filmmaking’ in New challenges for Documentary. (2005) ed. A. Rosenthal, J. Corner. Manchester University Press.

Renov, M. (1993) Theorizing Documentary. Minneapolis: The University of Minnesota Press.

Renov, M. (2004) The Subject of Documentary. Minneapolis: The University of Minnesotta Press.

Ruby, J. [1979] ‘The Ethics of Image making; or, “They’re going to Put me in the Movies, They’re Going to Make a Big Star Out of Me…’ in New challenges for Documentary. (2005) ed. A. Rosenthal, J. Corner. Manchester University Press.

Žižek, S. (2006) The Parallax View. Cambridge. Mass: MIT Press.

Samantha Moore’s Doctoral Thesis ‘Out of Sight: Using animation to document perceptual brain states’

Samantha Moore’s PhD thesis, Out of Sight: Using animation to document perceptual brain states (2015), presents a methodology for improving the authenticity of animated renderings of invisible mental phenomena experienced by two sets of participants; those with prosopagnosia (face blindness) and those with phantom limb syndrome. Her method involved interviewing participants (referred to as collaborative consultants), she then creates animated representations of the brain state phenomena, before returning to the collaborative consultant for verification or suggested improvements. This collaborative cycle of consultation and revision persists until the collaborative consultant confirms the animated representation feels as close to their reality as possible.

Moore developed this collaborative feedback method before her PhD on a Wellcome Trust project in which artist are pared with scientists. Moore worked with Dr. Jamie Ward, the head of the Synaesthesia research group at UCL, on a project that would develop into the short film An Eyeful of Sound (2010), a film that attempts to represent visual synesthetic hallucinations that were prompted by audio stimuli.

Defensive discourse

Moore draws upon Jonathan Rozenkrantz’s identification of a tendency within animated documentary scholarship to adopt a defensive position. This is a concerted effort among animation academics to position animated documentary as a legitimate form of documentary practice primarily broadening the definition of the documentary genre (2015: 31). However, Rozenkrantz is not convinced by this discourse:

‘If the potency of a documentary’s truth claim is relative to the documents that constitute it, the animated documentary is significantly weakened by its lack of the fundamental evidential ingredient that is traditionally associated with documentary film: the photographic raw material. This is a problem that the ‘defensive’ discourse of animated documentary fails to acknowledge, arguing instead that every documentary is a construct and that, consequently, animated documentaries are just as ‘real’ as live-action ones.’ (2011)

Indexical deficit

Moore responds to Rozenkrantz’s conservative critique of animated documentary in several ways. Before even reaching Rozenkrantz in her thesis, she had already pointed out that indexical recordings exist in most animated documentaries, in the form of audio interview testimony.  However, Moore is suspicious of the consequences of depending so heavily on such material.  

‘This reliance on sound in the ‘animated interview’ film to provide the indexical link means that the visual is relegated to a supporting role for the soundtrack, simultaneously isolating and privileging the spoken testimony as ‘the document’. The visuals therefore become symbolic repositories for the words, inextricably linked to a language based coda’ (2015: 25).

Despite the constrictive impact audio testimony can have on the animated documentary form, the recorded material clearly functions as what Rozenkrantz would call ‘documents’.

An Intriguing Mistakes

Moore’s second response to Rozenkrantz involves a reflection on an instance in her own practice where she was forced to abandon indexicality because her audio interviews were poor quality. As a result, she chose to hire actors to dub over the testimony provided by documentary participants. ‘The Beloved Ones was no less received as an animated documentary than the previous and subsequent films of the author, using indexical sound made in the same genre’ (Moore:2015: 46). Moore “gets away” with a total lack of conventional indexicality in this film. This project raises interesting ethical dilemmas with regard to truth claims. Although there is nothing to suggest the messages contained in the words spoken by a voice actor are distorted, I suspect most audiences who saw this film did not realise the overdubbing took place. When Moore explained to me in person that the actors also put on accents to match the participants, I felt differently about the film’s authenticity but could not give a clear reason why this was wrong. In part my response was connected to breaching the documentary conventions that Rozenkrantz attempts to conserve.

However, I was also thrown off by Moore re-dubbing testimony for utilitarian reasons when it is typically reserved as a morally justifiable compromise. If a director masks a participant’s voice to protect their identity the director is essentially rebalancing a duty to the audience with a duty to protect their participants. However, rebalancing the authenticity of the documents against the director’s desire to make a film seems like a less justifiable sacrifice.

Regardless of my uneasiness around these issues, the project was successful, and the animation was received as a documentary. For Moore, this happy mistake opened a path to truth claims away from the restrictive commitment to indexical signs as the only guarantee of truth.

A World vs. the world vs. my world

Moore’s third response to Rozenkrantz is that in the right circumstance an animated image may be a more reliable representational tool than live action footage, i.e. when representing perceptual brain states. Moore refers to Bill Nichols distinction between documentary and fiction as the distinction between the historic world and a world of the filmmaker’s invention (1991:109). However this system only works ‘if we all agree on what the world looks like.’ (Moore, 2015: 56).

 ‘In certain situations animation can bridge the gap between ‘the world ‘ and ‘my world’ in a rounded and fulfilling way by creating a document of a perceptual brain state, an animated document evidencing the unphotographable ‘world in here’’ (Ibid: 24).

Moore draws upon the neuropsychology concept of the first-person-plural presumption, which is a form of cognitive bias that describes a person assuming the way the world appears to them is fundamentally the same as how it appears to everyone.  ‘You and I may agree that a flower is red but how do we know what it is exactly that we each mean by ‘red’?’ (Moore, 2015:61). This misconception provides the justification for both expanding Nichols’ restrictive definition of documentary, whilst also opening the possibility of animated documentary to exceed the capabilities of its live action counterpart.  


Anabella Honess Roe (2011:225) argues that the ‘evocation’ of subjective brain states is one of the three main functions that animated documentary serves, distinguishing it as a practice from live action documentary. While it is clear evocation in animated documentary serves a useful role in communicating scientifically recognisable phenomena, the dilemma remains that the images themselves are symbolic and iconic and lack the evidentiary properties of indexical images. Moore tasks herself with developing a method to raise the reliability of evocative animated documents to the level of indexical record.

The collaborative cycle

Moore’s collaborative feedback cycle involves a cyclical consultation with participants (collaborative consultants) regarding the veracity of the animated representations she creates. To do this, Moore adapted Luke Eric Lassiter’s ‘collaborative ethnography’ methodology (2005) which is summarised as follows:

‘1. Ethical and moral responsibility to consultants, 2. Honesty about the field work process, 3. Accessible and dialogic writing, and 4. Collaborative reading, writing and co interpretation of ethnographic texts with consultants’ (2005: 77).

Despite Moore’s primary focus being verifying authenticity in an animated document, Lassiter’s collaborative ethnographic methodology is more directly concerned with ethics. Responsivity, honesty, accessibility and collaboration, are all moral principles that accommodate the needs of the other.

Jay Ruby identifies three key ethical considerations for documentary makers:

‘(1) the image maker’s personal moral contract to produce an image that is somehow a true reflection of their intention in making the image in the first place-to, use a cliché, it is being true to one’s self; (2) the moral obligation of the producer to his or her subjects; and (3) the moral obligation of the producer to the potential audience’ (2005 [1979]: 211).

While Lassiter’s ethics seem to emphasise the ethnographer’s moral duty to their collaborative consultants, Moore redirects these commitments to a moral obligation to the potential audience. In other words, Moore focuses her efforts towards the social contract between documentary filmmaker and audience that the documents in the film tangibly reflects actuality. This is not to say Moore has abandoned her responsibility to her participants. Her method empowers these collaborative consultants in the production process. 

‘By using a collaborative methodology the person being represented has the opportunity to comment, re-frame and change the work, occupying an engaged role in the process and transforming from the passive (‘subject’, ‘interviewee’) to the actively involved (‘collaborative consultant’)’ (Moore 2015:105).

However, Moore abandons the task of achieving an effective balance between her ethical commitment towards her audience and participants, and herself as an artist. ‘This shift in power balance has an equivalent effect on the role of the ‘facilitator’; previously film maker or director, whose authorial voice is devolved… and who is absolved of creative responsibility for the duration of the documenting process’ (2015: 105). The role of director is purposefully relegated to that of facilitator the filmic products of this study producing ‘documents’ rather than ‘documentaries’ (2015:24). Whatever happens to the animated documents afterwards (they may, for example, be made into a film as with An Eyeful of Sound), whilst engaged in the collaborative cycle the facilitator privileges the data from the collaborative consultants over every personal creative impulse.

It is perhaps unfair to diminish Moore’s research for not achieving goals that she explicitly put aside. However, from the perspective of documentary ethics, it could be argued that if I were to adhere strictly to the parameters she has set out by the collaborative feedback cycle would the role of the director be so  greatly diminished that the a key responsibility have been neglected, that of the creative intention?

Kneading the icon into an index

Moore argues that the collaborative feedback cycle fundamentally changes the relationship between referent and representation so much so that it is no longer reasonable to restrict the classification of the images of perceptual brain states as iconic. 

‘The subject of the film can become integrated and then re-integrated into the materiality of the film. The animated document is itself an indexical record of the conversation that has taken place and remains a representation of our very subjectivity’ (2015: 99).

Moore is suggesting that there is an indexical chain that links the perceptual brain states of the collaborative consultants to their speech, which has directly shaped and verified the animated representations to the extend that the chain is never broken.

However, I would argue Moore is overstretching her argument by suggesting her renderings of brain states are indexical. Indexicality suggested a direct trace of contact. However, Moore’s process, requires a large degree of translation, a fundamentally mimetic process involving symbolic and iconic semiotic codes, which simultaneously break the indexical link.  

If, however, the artist was representing their own subjective brain state, such as in the case of expressionist painting, there would be an indexical link between the marks they made and the mind that prompted them. I would argue autoethnographic evocative animated documentary possesses an indexical potency that cannot be matched by interpretive evocation, which is fundamentally mimetic, no matter how many times the image is tweaked according to feedback.

This is not to suggest Moore’s work is in authentic, clearly she has developed an innovative method for crafting verified representations of invisible phenomena. However, by arguing that these images are indexical, rather than iconic, Moore is contributing to the idea that indexicality is the only legitimate root representing actuality, when clearly she has developed a method that navigates around that issue.

Shadow Stories

Moore made one film that uses both the collaborative feedback cycle, while not also relying on audio testimony. Working with Shrewsbury Museum and Art Gallery, the local council archaeologists became the collaborative consultants, providing feedback on animated scenes of how items from their collection would have been used in a prehistoric context. (2015: 173)

This film does not provide the feeling of a documentary, in fact Moore refers to it as a ‘short interpretive film’ (Ibid.). It is entirely based on re-enactment, with only best guess interpretations informing the content. This suggests to me that it is very difficult to produce the documentary feeling without indexical evidence. What is not clear to me is whether this is because the arbitrary conventions of the documentary genre have trained me to expect this or because there is some essential quality of indexicality that is inseparable form documentary practice.


The unavoidable draw back to the collaborative feedback cycle is that it extends an already time consuming and costly process. This is not an insignificant point; it may mean the difference between being able to produce/fund a film or not.  My second concern is that Moore’s method does not sufficiently account for her own role as a creative. Moore reflects upon her role as a facilitator or translator, but this radically reduces the responsibility’s laid at the hands of a documentary director to their own creative intentions. However, if we were to look at An Eyeful of Sound (2010) made before starting her PhD, or Loop (2015) make after, both of which use the collaborative cycle, it is self-evident that Moore would have had to make creative decisions when piecing together the documents that inform the documentary.

From my perspective as an animated documentary practitioner and researcher interested in ethics, the most valuable aspect of Moore’s research is building into the method a participant’s agency and influence. Moore’s collaborative consultants are the arbiters of when an animated document is ready to be included in a film. This method almost guarantees that the participant will be happy with the final film, which is not always the case (there are many examples of participants attempting to sue documentary filmmakers after the film’s release).

I believe Moore misses an opportunity to integrate her method into the content of An Eye Full of Sound (2010). I know how respectful and conscientious her approach to collaboration is from reading her thesis and seeing her speak at conferences, however, someone viewing the films without that knowledge does not see how reliable these animated simulations of synaesthesia are.

Moore moves closer to textual reflexivity in Loop (2015) by working on a project where many of the scientists involve disagree on the visual appearance of the biological phenomena they are attempting to study.

These disagreements leave room for multiple conflicting representations calling into question the reliability of the others. Similarly, there is some commentary from the collaborative consultants regarding the process of drawing: “This is going to be the most boring drawing in the entire world” (Loop: 2015: 1min 45sec).  These reflexive devices give a greater sense of Moore’s method, extending further her ethical commitment to the audience in terms of transparency. However, the conflicting perspectives are between the various collaborative consultants, rather than between the participants and the filmmaker. Moore remains, as she does in all her films, a hidden figure whose activity and influence is largely masked.

Drawing influence from Moore I intend to adapt the collaborative cycle by drawing closer focused on positional and textual reflexivity. I want my audiences to get a glimpse into the processes involved in shaping films that the participants are happy with, while also showing my presence as a fallible artist, occasionally projecting my own fantasies and misrepresenting the intentions of my participant. By including the flawed early interpretations into the finished film my goal is to redress the power balance between director and audience, which I feel is not effectively tackled in Moore’s work.  


Honess Roe, A., (2011) ‘Absence, Excess and Epistemological Expansion: Towards a Framework for the Study of Animated Documentary’ in Animation: An Interdisciplinary Journal. Sage: London. 6(3) 215–230.

Lassiter, L.E., (2005) The Chicago Guide to Collaborative Ethnography. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Moore, S. (2015) Out of sight: using animation to document perceptual brain states. Loughborough University.

Rozenkrantz, J., (2011) Colourful Claims: towards a theory of animated documentary Film

International online journal [online] Available at <http://filmint.nu/?p=1809&gt; [Accessed 23th

November 2020]

Ruby, J. [1979] ‘The Ethics of Image making; or, “They’re going to Put me in the Movies, They’re Going to Make a Big Star Out of Me…’ in New challenges for Documentary. (2005) ed. A. Rosenthal, J. Corner. Manchester University Press.

Animated documentary as documentary drag

I listened to a few lectures on Judith Butler’s Gender Trouble (1990) and it got me thinking about performativity and drag as a metaphor for animated documentary.  

If drag is a performance that subverts the idea of naturalised gender, i.e. it exposes the culturally constructed and actively performed properties of gender, could animated documentary be functioning as a metaphorical “drag” subversion of the conventions of live action documentary practice? 

My animated documentaries impersonate many of the tropes of live action documentary tradition to compensate for the absence of some if the indexical mechanisms that supposedly guarantee documentary value. For example, I draw in microphones in some of my participatory interviews. My animated documentaries also feature visual excesses, i.e. rapid scene changes that exaggerate and exceed the norms of documentary. Despite this ambivalence of authenticity in the animated scenes, the films build to form something that feels like it has documentary value. 

The trajectory of animated documentary discourse is defensive, featuring many variations on an argument that justifies the status of animation as capable of presenting documentary narratives. However in doing so it has contributed to many debates that erode the truth claims and objective nature of documentary practice, arguing instead that all documentary is a performance of subjectivity and manipulation masquerading as objectivity. 

From this perspective animated documentary is metaphorically functioning as a form of documentary drag that further illuminates the instability of documentary ontology. Like biological sex, indexicality does exists but, in regard to truth claims, it’s semiotic role is far more complicated and blurrier than documentary practitioners give it credit for. Likewise, the traditions and tropes of documentary practice could be viewed as fragile performances that must be defended fiercely to ensure the binary status of fiction and documentary. 

Butler, J. (1990). Gender trouble: feminism and the subversion of identity. New York, Routledge.

Theory & Philosophy (13 Jul 2019) ‘Judith Butler “Gender Trouble” (First Half)’ available online: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WtA1CpcNxhk

Theory & Philosophy (3 Aug 2019) ‘Judith Butler “Gender Trouble” (Second Half)’ available online: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1Idi0Fhx4WE

YaleCourses (1 Sept 2009) ’23. Queer Theory and Gender Performativity’ available online: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7bkFlJfxyF0

Race and Representation in Animated Documentary

This article was co-written by Alex Widdowson (AW) and Daniel Murtha (DM), each author’s contributions are labeled with their initials.

AW: In my role as festival producer of Factual Animation Film Festival (FAFF), together with Daniel Murtha, festival director and founder, we gave a presentation on ‘Race and Representation in Animated Documentary’ at the Festival of Animation Berlin. 

We originally entitled this talk ‘Race and Othering in Animated Documentary’, but after preparing we realised Race and Representation was a more accurate descriptor of our intentions.

Daniel and I recognised there was an irony to two white people taking the stage to talk about race. However, back in May 2020 when we were asked to give a presentation on animated documentary, drawing from the FAFF archive, the Black Lives Matter protests were reaching their peak, following George Floyd’s murder. 

As a result the conversation in the UK and around the world shifted away from race being a topic typically discussed by primarily people of colour, to race as a conversation that we all need to be having, especially white people, who, according to the trope, suffer from a fragility that positions race as a no-go topic. 

Daniel and I wanted to do our best to advocate for a cause we both believe in and decided to use our privilege and this opportunity to promote the ethos of Black Lives Matter in a public forum. 

DM: Alex and I are both practicing filmmakers and festival programmers, so race and representation was discussed through the lens of craft and the practicalities of making film.

AW: Our focus was on the questions of who can / should tell a story, how does one’s position inform the stories they tell and can one speak for someone else? 

Daniel and I wanted to be clear about our own positions, so the audience had a better understanding of who we are, how we identify. This hopefully equipped the audience to critique our perspectives based on more than our appearance. 

I, Alex Widdowson, am British, straight white male, I use male pronouns he/him. I identify as neurodivergent, due to my dyslexia and my history with inconsistent mental wellbeing. 

DM: I, Daniel Murtha, am white, British, bisexual, nonbinary, and my preferred pronouns are they/them.

To clarify, our degrees of marginality do not justify us talking about race and the black experience; we do, afterall, live with white privilege, however, perhaps our interest in this topic relates to the fact that we don’t come from an entirely monolithic, homogenous group. Both Alex and I view this work differently, but if you can understand who we are and where we’re coming from, you’ll better understand how we’re decoding these topics.

One Day On Carver St

Azure Allen, 2016, USA, 3:38

AW: It’s important to note that this film was made when the director was 16 years old. Azure Allen is a white woman from South Carolina, USA. She clearly had very good intentions and is a lot more socially engaged than I was age 16.

I think the John Sawhill quote presented at the end of the film is interesting in light of the Black Lives Matter movement. 

‘In the end our society will be defined not only by what we create but what we refuse to destroy.’ 

Clearly this was intended to refer to the maintenance of favorable memorials, but this statement  sheds a light on the statue debate taking place in 2020. In Bristol, UK, an infamous statue of Edward Colston, a slave trader, was torn down by protesters. Whereas, elsewhere vigilante groups gather around statues of confederate icons and problematic world figures such as Winston Churchill in order to protect fantasies of a simpler past. 

The director’s race raises interesting questions, what are the limitations of a well meaning white person making a film about racism? 

There is a sense of white liberal detachment to the material realities of racism. The racism that is present in this film is almost cliched. It manifests as hooded KKK members and the hypocrisy of hotel managers who expected entertainers to sleep elsewhere. Despite being legitimate grievances from the pre civil rights era, these tropes have been well worn by Hollywood’s white saviour films. 

By focusing on the overt grievances present before the civil rights movement, a subtext is created that positions racism as a thing of the past.  

Another absence is noticeable in this film. The people of colour, selected as protagonists were all presented as victims, and the story of black power, and the potential for resistance or even protest does not enter this selective history. 

The black figures presented in this film are nearly all entertainers. Here the filmmaker unwittingly perpetuates the fetishization of the black body as magically gifted for song and dance, a trope that persists to this day. One black character who is not themselves an entertainer is Charlie Fitzgerald, the business owner, who is brutally abused and never recovers. He is punished by society for stepping out of the accepted pathways of black professionalism. 

This film was created with the best intentions, each of these specific points were all raised in the context of illuminating some of the horrors of racism. However, the construction and emphasis in this film seemingly draw more from the tropes of Hollywood’s attempts at anti-racism, suggesting a limited perspective and shallow analysis of the complex systematic and unconscious aspects of historic and contemporary racism.

 I Never Picked Cotton

Students of USC, 2018, USA, 3:38

DM: A group of 12 students from the documentary programme at University of Southern California, decided to forego traditional production hierarchies and share the director title. This film features personal testimony from Yolanda Morgan, a young black woman who is also one of the co-directors. Morgan delivers an anecdote about overt racism that she was exposed to at a very young age. I find this film profound because Morgan recognises she is already too cynical to live innocently in the world without seeing it through a racial lense, however she points to her younger brother as someone for whom there is hope. 

It is hard to imagine what it must be like to approve an animation sequence in which your siblings are shot, and yet this is a possibility that Morgan has to contend with as a black woman living in the US.

This film exemplifies a consciously collaborative approach to filmmaking. While Yolanda Morgan did not have complete creative control, the organisation of this project positioned her to offer feedback and a sense check on every aspect of the production. Much of the success of this project lies in that a young black woman was given a platform to tell her story while being positioned to maintain a degree of control over her own representation and narrative. 

Land Of The Free? 

Students of USC, 2018, USA, 4:19 

AW: This film weaves the story of Colin Kaepernick, taking the knee during the national anthem, into the history of American protest, revolutionary theory and post-colonialism. This concise and powerful story is constructed by another group of 13 students from USC. 

It seems hard for us to understand why some Americans, in the name of patriotism, object so strongly to taking the knee in the national anthem. We get the impression these might be the same people who take part in celebrating Martin Luther King jr. Day, i.e. people who don’t think they are racist. But I think what this shows is that privilege and comfort can be an inhibitor for building empathy and understanding for those in different circumstances. 

Segregated by Design

Mark Lopez 17:42


‘Explainer’ films are all over the internet, though underrepresented and under-discussed in festival discourse. Typically these films are not compatible with the auteur filmmaking approach. The animated documentary canon consists of more personal or idiosyncratic films, but the value of Segregated by Design resides in the calm delivery of argument, supported by sources and facts, providing valuable knowledge to complement some of the personal testimonies elsewhere in this programme.

This film makes use of the well-worn documentary mode, exposition. A tradition that stretches back to the first feature documentary, Nanook of The North (Flaherty, 1922). 

The expository mode is easily criticised for representing the narrator with unwavering authority. This so-called Voice-of-God exposition has historically presented a straight, white, middle class male’s perspective as if it were the monolithic, linear history of the world, while failing to acknowledge the possibility of multiple perspectives on truth. A marxist/postcolonial framing of exposition associates the voice-of-God narration with hegemonic ideologies. However, it’s interesting that this film presents an anti-establishment perspective delivered by way of a hegemonic trope, with the goal of exposing a system of hegemony and oppression.

While there is clearly value in the ‘explainer’ format, be aware that audiences are easily overwhelmed with detail and may prefer not to have facts hurtled at them in a didactic manner. ‘Showing’ an argument through story can be more compelling.

We included Segregated by Design firstly because it is well-made, but also because it highlights truths about systematic racism; we often fail to see that even when legal discrimination is technically abolished, insidious and deliberately disguised forms of discrimination can creep back in. 


1:20, UK, 2020

Zainab Sanyang

DM: A successful doc doesn’t need to have a explicit thesis; it is enough to show a place or person in their honest form. This film is really simple: young black people expressing positive comments about their hair. That’s it!

Black bodies are often battlegrounds — debated and excluded, regulated and shaped — and black hair is no different. In 2016 it was reported that searching for ‘unprofessional hair’ in google produced screens of afros, cornrows and dreadlocks, hairstyles that require as much upkeep as straight hair, but that all happen to be black (Guardian Online, 2016). A film as simple as this is novel and refreshing, and permits black hair to exist apart from the subtext with which western societies have encumbered it.

‘Black is beautiful’ is a black power slogan from the 1960s, and it’s worth highlighting that this message still needs to be said today. Internalised prejudice, i.e. prejudices held about a group by members of that group, has always been a powerful inhibitor to change. If the medium is the message, then films like this are statements of freedom by their existence.

I Don’t Protest, I Just Dance In My Shadow

Jessica Ashman, 2017, UK, 5:21

DM: As white people we tend to look outward at racism rather than inward, and while we may try to interrogate ourselves, we often overlook our institutions. Most people believe that rapists are strangers or outsiders, and fail to see rape culture amongst their family, friends and partners. We are just as blind to racism, often because we actively choose not to see it.

AW: I could identify at least four of the eight participants in this doc are People of Colour who studied or worked at the RCA. In the last few months the RCA Universities and Colleges Union has been working hard to highlight the systemic, implicit and casual racism that persists at this prestigious art school.

View this post on Instagram

Student testimony #generationrca

A post shared by RCA UCU (@rca_ucu) on

In the talk we showed a few posts from the RCA_UCU instagram feed, testimonials from staff and students about racism at the RCA. 

Decolonising the institution is a major theme within the British art world that is building momentum. Ashman’s film displayed the landscape of unease that bubbled up and contributed to the tensions being played out through protest in the UK and around the world.

Our Story

Lorenzo Latrofa 4:31


DM: This film is chiefly about immigration but the overlaps with race are overt.

If the film didn’t give us the date of ‘March 1946’, it could be set any time from WW2 to the present day. Indeed, the animation that accompanies this story shows refugees from Africa and the Middle East arriving and striving in modern-day Italy. The narrator is sparse with details, but two minutes in, and we realise the narrator is talking about immigrants in a different place, in a different time.

The film eventually gives the names and faces it withheld at the start, and ties these two complimentary tales into one, a universal one, ‘our story’.

This film was worth including in part because the animation is very appealing, and from a craft standpoint, shows the benefits of a limited colour palette.

It’s worth asking, in a medium in which anything can be portrayed, how far an animator should dive into metaphor and fantasy e.g. this film represents the abstract idea of hatred as a pack of wolves. It is interesting to consider if a scene closer to real events may be more or less impactful. Perhaps this depends on the audience. 

Marcus McGhee

Alix Lambert & Sam Chou, 4:19

DM: This is one of our favourite animated documentaries, and we couldn’t not include it in a programme on race. 

AW: Interestingly, the directors of this film are an Asian Canadian man, Sam Chou, and a white American woman, Alix Lambert. I think this is a perfect example to show that you don’t have to be a member of a group to make a film about issues that affect that group. 

I personally think it’s a very dangerous message to say only black people can create black stories and only white people can make white stories. This further segregates how we produce culture. My point is that if you’re not a member of a community you are more at risk of perpetuating narratives that serve your own community. These risks are serious and result in tropes like the white savior that are still being played out in mainstream Hollywood. However, with a lot of openness, sensitivity and respect, it is possible to represent people from another group well. 

In Marcus McGhee the representation of criminals is an obvious example of actively resisting black criminality stereotypes by diversifying the perpetrators. More importantly, we feel the directors truly engage with the perspective of their protagonist. Personally I would advocate collaborative filmmaking between a protagonist and filmmaker to ensure the filmmaker’s attitude or gaze is not problematic or misconceived. 

DM: As a programmer I see that often filmmakers seem to think a serious subject requires a serious tone. But dropping the viewer’s guard with humour is a powerful method of changing minds. It’s also worth adding that this is a story about shit police. The most explicit comment about race is as much about patriarchy.

The KD Doc

Students of Reynolds Elementary, 2016, USA, 2:37

Online video unavailable 

DM: kids talk about why they admire a basketball player, what’s not to like?

AW:  It makes me sad that merchandising is such a prominent aspect of this film. These kids really are captivated by consumerism, but it’s also very interesting to see ideology being interpolated so clearly. 

Aspiring to be a sports star has a racist component to it. Alkala, a british musician and author, wrote a book called Natives, in which he describes the different experience of visiting schools in Uganda and London. The Ugandan kids had a wide variety of career plans, whereas the black british boys he spoke to all either wanted to be rappers or sports stars (2019).  The lack of diverse role models and dominant stereotypes significantly shapes children’s psychology. This example adds weight to the adage “If you can’t see it, you can’t be it.” As filmmakers we need to diversify the way we represent minority characters within mainstream and independent media.

Daniel and I ended our talk with two questions for the audience, many of whom were animators. We’ll let you ponder your own answers. 

How would you feel being asked to make a film about a subject that affects a minority of which you are not a member? 

What would you do to make sure you didn’t fuck it up?

Finally, Daniel and I were interviewed about our talk by Robert Loebel (director of the short films Island, Wind and Link) for his podcast Trickfilm Forscher (Animation Explorer) as he gave us a lift back to the hotel on the last night of The Festival of Animation Berlin.


Akala (2019) Natives: Race and Class in the Ruins of Empire. John Murray Press.

The Guardian Online (2016) ‘Do Google’s ‘unprofessional hair’ results show it is racist?’, Leigh Alexander, published 08/04/16. Available online [accessed 16/10/20]:https://www.theguardian.com/technology/2016/apr/08/does-google-unprofessional-hair-results-prove-algorithms-racist-

Loebel, R. (2020) ‘interview with Alex Widdowson and Daniel Murtha’ in ‘Folge 38 – FA Berlin 2020 (Teil 2)’, Trickfilmforscher [Podcast], published on 17/10/20. avaliable online [accessed 18/10/20]: https://soundcloud.com/trickfilmforscher