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Many documentary narratives are heavily influenced by the unique relationship present between documentarian and their subject. Whether friendly, professional, neutral, or intimate, this connection ultimately skews the product’s position upon its’ subject matter and poses difficulties in exploring the subject matter in the manner intended by its’ documentarian. The choices in how each of the following documentarians presents their product in both narrative form and point of view, their relationship with their subject, and their subject’s agency in the final product each impact the ethics of the documentary and the perception of its audiences. The films to be discussed, Errol Morris’ 1988 ‘Thin Blue Line’, Albert and David Maysles ‘Gimme Shelter’, and Nick Broomfield’s ‘Aileen: Life and Death of a Serial Killer’ each feature distinct relationships between documentarian and subject, and the effects of such may have gleamed through close analysis and comparison of the aforementioned films.

Vital to consider in the construction of the documentary is the amount of agency the subject has in the final product. This may be seen most profoundly within the context of ‘Gimme Shelter’ in that the subject, the band The Rolling Stones, has almost total control over the direction of the film. As Aaron Taylor surmises, “Zwerin and [the] Maysles were quite aware of the band’s power … [to] exercise legal control over the use of its image” (Taylor A. 2014). Such power would explain the many omissions within the film as well as the directorial voice of neutrality, and Taylor further claims that this relationship forces a “tacitly critical [view] of the Stones’ role in the disastrous concert. This veiled power dynamic presents ethical implications for the film as a whole, as it may be interpreted as adversely impacting the honesty of the product. The extent to which “Gimme Shelter” is able to implicate the Stones is far more nuanced, and most apparent during the final shots of the film. The directors had opted to end the film with a shot of Jagger, the group’s leader, in an intimate close-up still directly after presenting the group’s escape from the anarchistic crowd and right before slow shots of the sunrise purview of the aftermath of the concert. This implication of guilt is the extent to which the directors can effectively frame the Rolling Stones as having a part played in the “disastrous free concert” (Cheshire G. 2009). Whilst it cannot be claimed definitively, it is plausible that given the angle the directors had taken throughout the film, that had they more agency in their own product then they would have made a more damning piece on the Rolling Stones.

This level of control on behalf of the social actors is contrasted within the film “Aileen: Life and Death of a Serial Killer”, which features an incarcerated and mentally ill subject. Furthermore, this level of control is furthered due to Broomfield’s subject being deceased at the point of the film’s release, as well as his maintaining a positive relationship with his subject, as opposed to the purely professional relationship present in Maysles’s film. This relationship is especially apparent within Broomfield’s film, as he is eventually left as the only person with access to Aileen Wuornos, depicted visually by the almost empty interview room on the day prior to her execution. Portrayed through her morbid statement to director Broomfield that ‘I love you, man’ as she is taken away handcuffed, is the interrelating balance between trust and helplessness; Wuornos is physically unable to control how Broomfield portrays her, save her own conscious choices to look damningly into the camera lens, as much as she is unwilling to do so on account of her apparent faith in the director. Yet during this same scene the problems apparent in this relationship are shown, as Broomfield discreetly records Wuornos disclosing clearly private information to him, he arguably becomes ironically a culprit of what Wuornos abhorred most: someone who ‘[used her] for books and movies and shit’.

Thusly, by opposing Broomfield’s ‘Aileen: Life and Death of a Serial Killer’ to ‘Gimme Shelter’ the great importance of a social actor’s agency can be viewed. Whereas the almost total agency of the Rolling Stones forced a subtle and implicative critique of the band, the contrary total lack of agency on behalf of Aileen Wuornos resulted in the director effectively having the total ability to use, and arguably to abuse, his subject’s image.

A further important feature to note from each documentary is how audiences’ perceptions of the social actors and subjects are impacted by each film’s perspective. In each documentary, the documentarian utilizes specific film techniques and principles in order to frame their narrative in an effective way, and this is perhaps most perceptible within Morris’ film. Morris’s narrative is built in such a way that it introduces consequences before actions: the film opens with Randall Adams and David Harris in prison uniforms. The sincere expression of Adams opposes the relaxed and unconcerned portrayal of Harris, and Morris gradually tells audiences more and more about the crime that was committed, and through this highlights the inconsistencies present throughout the case. The visual presentation of the diverse and changing testimonies are presented, as Özlem Kaymaz claims, “[using] fictional narration style to manipulate actuality” (Kaymaz, Ö, 2012). As Kaymaz continues, “Morris dramatically recalls details of witness’s explanations demonstrating the incompatibility between almost all [of] the versions”, ultimately concluding that “with the aid of editing [Morris] allows us to hear all the versions of the truth, and decide on our own”. It should also be considered that Morris’s style of filming does not neatly align with any given mode of documentary-making, but instead employs fictional narrative conventions, such as presenting conflicting stories sequentially that counteract one another, in order to provide a story that “reads like a modern crime [drama]”. Through presenting his documentary almost as a drama, Morris ultimately succeeds in breaking down the established truth of the case and in doing so is able to best highlight the erroneous nature of the case.

Juxtaposing the unorthodox style of Morris’s documentary is that of ‘Gimme Shelter’. Originally shot in order to detail the events of the Rolling Stones’ 1969 tour, Maysles’s documentary largely adheres to observational contexts, most likely due to them having been unable to know that they would eventually capture a killing on film. Like Morris’s work, ‘Gimme Shelter’ is also portrayed non-linearly, and the film opens on a shot of the Rolling Stones standing in the editing room, reviewing the footage, which later evolves into the group listening back on a radio studio recounting the chaos of the concert. Whilst in ‘Thin Blue Line’ this nonlinear format was used in order to break down the events that transpired, in Maysles’s work it is instead used to imply a sense of retrospective reflection. Long and quiet close-up shots of the group members build a sense of intimacy and deep thought, adding to the mindful contemplation. This is further supported as later in the film the group is portrayed in a sweeping close-up, listening to their pre-recorded song, where the slow movements of the camera and the long time spent focusing on their faces add to the air of melancholy. Through generating a tone of thoughtfulness and portraying the Rolling Stones as if they are reflecting, the Maysles simultaneously suggests that the band is both mature yet also partially at fault. This careful construction of the Stones’ image as reflective effectively frames them throughout the entire piece as thoughtful and requires considerable contemplation on the audience’s behalf in order to understand the critical lens of the Maysles brothers.

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Whereas ‘Thin Blue Line’ utilized a narrative-style perspective and lens to draw attention to the logical fallacies present in the case, ‘Gimme Shelter’ uses its traditionalism to frame the Rolling Stones on the surface as commendable for their maturity despite the outcome of the free concert. In spite of the wildly different techniques used, both documentaries ultimately utilize deliberate perspectives in order to frame the social actors in a favorable manner.

Furthermore, the documentarian’s objective, and how it impacts or was impacted by their relationship with the subject, is an important consideration when discussing each product. Broomfield’s product displays a particularly distinct relation between his intention and his subject, for he attempts to criticize the state of Florida’s choice to execute Aileen Wuornos, and by extension critiques the death penalty as a whole. Broomfield’s intent becomes clear when considering the documentary’s voice; Broomfield’s investigation into Wuornos’s situation is not made to absolve her of any guilt, but to instead confirm her mental instability, hence condemning the decision to execute her. Broomfield’s tone is best described as rational, as he primarily attempts to deal with facts, being reluctant to appeal to the audience’s emotions, save for when he discusses Wuornos’s childhood. His ever-present narrations are almost tone-deaf themselves and set a mood for the documentary as a whole. Likewise, Broomfield places an emphasis on Wuornos’s detachment through long, intimate close-ups of her recounting the conspiracies and manipulations of the government during her final press conference, heavily implying that she is a deranged individual. Through these techniques, Broomfield concludes that Aileen is a mentally incapable individual, thusly damning her execution as a political and exploitative choice.

Because of Wuornos’s death by the time the documentary was released, the film had no ongoing effect upon the documentarian and subject’s relationship, but it is nonetheless important to consider how Broomfield reached his contention with the subject in his mind. Ultimately, Broomfield’s film neither directly supports nor undermines Wuornos’s position as a serial killer, but instead uses her story to discuss the morality of the death sentence, having it been used upon a person not sound of mind. In this sense, considering that Wuornos herself appeared to have trusted Broomfield, as well as the film using her image to denounce capital punishment and not its subject, it may be suggested that Broomfield’s film was not an ethical breach of confidence to his subject.

Errol Morris’s documentary features some shared similarities with ‘Aileen: Life and Death of a Serial Killer”, but there are also notable points of differences, with special regard to the outcome of the documentary. Of the similarities, the most notable is the initial relationship with the subject. Much as Broomfield was privy to Wuornos’s private life because of the mutual trust shared between the two, Morris was able to produce his film because of his amiable relationship with Randall Adams. In this regard, Morris’s contention may have been impacted by his relation to Adams, much as Adams’s relation with Morris may have been impacted by his documentary’s contention: it is likely that as Adams and Morris shared the goal of pardoning Adams, cooperation would have benefitted both documentarian and social actor. As both parties, therefore, may be attempting to push an agenda, the reliability of the product may be summarily skewed. This may be seen as contrasting Broomfield’s product, in which he is depicted having to pry information about the truth of Wuornos’s killings from her, as opposed to the common agenda present in Morris’s film.

However, where the two products majorly differ is in the aftermath of the film’s release. Randall Adams’s death sentence was ultimately overturned, but he subsequently attempted to fight Morris in court to regain the rights to his story. Although an agreement was reached outside of court that effectively returned the rights back to Adams, Morris addresses the innate ethical question here with a statement made to Wisconsin Public Radio, that “[Adams] felt as though I had stolen something from him.” (Morris, E. 2004), regarding his life’s story. Adams claimed that he did not sue for any money, and the “matter was resolved before having to go before a judge. Mr. Morris reluctantly agreed that I had the sole rights to my life”. Had such a dispute occurred prior to the film’s release, it may be considered whether or not the product would have eventuated in the manner it did, if it were completed at all. Both referenced documentarians share a few key features, most notably a willing cooperation with their subject. In either case, the documentarian’s product is only possible because of their relationship with their subject, although while in the case of Morris’s work, there is a shared goal that may result in overt bias, whilst Broomfield is forced to, at times, pry information out of his unstable subject.

In conclusion, a vital aspect to consider when discussing the ethics, stylistic choices and documentary style, perspective, and the ultimate goal of documentaries is that of the documentarian’s relation to their subject. The power dynamic and general relationship shared between the two parties impacts a multitude of components of the resultant documentary, ranging from impacting how the social actors are portrayed, the perspective taken by the film, how the documentarian reaches his conclusion, and how that conclusion is made apparent. ‘Gimme Shelter’ is highly affected by the degree of agency of its subject material, which ultimately shapes how the narrative is formed and how the Maysles brothers reach their objective. ‘Thin Blue Line’s willing subject may have resulted in a biased agenda being present, affecting the ethicality of the project, whereas the mentally deranged and deceased social actor in ‘Aileen: Life and Death of a Serial Killer’ presents its own unique ethical complications.

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