What is Screen Ethics?

Posted by in Cinema, Festivals

Below is an excerpt from my manuscript Buying In to Doing Good: Documentary Politics and Curatorial Ethics at the Hot Docs Film Festival , to be published by McGill-Queen’s University Press in 2020.

When considering the liberal festival experience, agnostic curation sidesteps what I call screen ethics, an approach to media or screen arts that denies the possibility of content being tidily and unproblematically divorced from context, and holds that ethical considerations must include the ways in which films are made and the ways in which films circulate and are embedded/deployed in wider cultures and society (especially by way of curatorial and exhibition practices and platforms).

With this in mind, when we ask what are the ethical concerns around films programmed at film festivals, we are including concerns around on and off-screen representation, reciprocal relationships between makers and subjects and audiences, fair and just policies and practices, as well as equitable curatorial processes and inclusive organization of film screenings.

Screen ethics, which gathers making, choosing, showing, and experiencing under one principled roof, therefore points to a social justice-committed, rather than agnostic, type of curation. The ethical bundling of film production with film curation, circulation and exhibition forces a closer look at a series of relations that move outward from a film’s inception to its reception, from intent to content to context, and which keeps company with calls for a “documentary code of ethics” by demanding festivals and other film institutions develop and make public best practices protocols and ethics policies, thus formalizing and making transparent these complex cascades of relations and their ethical dimensions that continue like associative tributaries from the film text long after picture lock.

Paying attention to screen ethics and demanding our arts institutions do the same can serve as an antidote to agnostic programming, by now a mainstay of the liberal festival architecture and experience. The story of screen ethics—which quite literally gestures to the many screens and frames on and through which a film will contextually travel—is the back story to every documentary’s circulatory trajectory. Screen ethics calls attention to the production and circulation of films, never extricating the product from the processes that allow a film text to exist and move in the world.

Essentially, screen ethics never ignores the (back) story of the film as a web-of-relations (of financing, commissioning, collaboration, curation, etc). What audiences encounter on screen represents a small portion of the larger picture, which involves all the relations and their power dispersions. A screen ethics approach to practicing and analyzing filmmaking, film management and film programming, with its objective to tease out inequity and injustice, is therefore part of the recalibration scaffolding that supports the critical curatorial framework I think we need.

Because an insistence on the implementation of screen ethics implicates powerful industry players and implies a pulling back of the proverbial curtain to reveal the not-for-public-consumption inner workings of arts institutions (and the non-reciprocal, uneven and exploitative relations therein), it remains a radical provocation which has yet to take hold in an era where corporately-funded film festivals are misguidedly considered alternative media/film platforms to big media and Hollywood’s extended exhibition circuitry. It is my optimistic hope that film makers, programmers, managers, financiers, audiences, fans and stakeholder communities will demand and initiate a framework of screen ethics in practice and policy.

Pictured above: Coca-Cola was the Environmental Film sponsor at Hot Docs in 2013, an instance I point to when highlighting a lack of practiced screen ethics at festivals.