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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