Conflict of interest when making a documentary

by Sidney
(Los Angeles, CA,)

Question: I am producing a documentary about two good friends of mine who run an unusual restaurant in the desert. The director is concerned the friendship is a conflict of interest, and rarely happens in the doc film industry.

I believe there must be examples of success stories of creating a film about a subject or subject matter with which one might be intimately familiar.

The greater question is, of course, regarding protecting relationships, while managing creative control. I would love insight, reading material, analagous examples, etc..

Thank you, Sidney

Desktop Documentaries | Answer:

This is a great question. The answer all depends on the story, the circumstances and the storytelling style you choose. If there is any concern about conflict of interest, you can include as part of the documentary a brief statement about the filmmaker's connection to the story.

For example, in Alexandra Palosi's documentary Journeys With George about George Bush's 2000 presidential campaign, Alexandra gave full disclosure that her mom Nancy Palosi was a California Democratic Representative. That way, the audience understood the producer's connection to the subject and where she was coming from.

In Michael Moore's break-out hit documentary Roger & Me, he examines the negative economic impact of General Motors after they closed several plants down in Michigan costing tens of thousands of people their jobs. In the documentary, Moore introduces himself, explaining that his father was a General Motors employee. You can't get a bigger conflict of interest than that! But because Moore was upfront about his connection, you understand where he's coming from and it made the story more interesting and more personal.

Sometimes the BEST documentaries are those where the filmmaker has very close access and personal ties to the story. They have access that no one else does. That's the BEAUTY of documentaries. They often cover angles that the mainstream media is not.

Conflict of interest is even less of an issue when the subject matter is non-controversial which sounds like it might fit the bill on your particular documentary idea.

Conflict of interest is primarily a concern if you are working as a journalist (or portraying yourself as a journalist).

As for managing relationships and creative control, I recommend getting your friends to sign a talent release (kind of like an MOU). That's standard practice when making a documentary. That will help set expectations about how you plan to use their interviews/story, who has creative control and who owns what. Learn more about legal documentary stuff.

If you have an opinion or feedback about this topic, please leave your comment below.

Comments for Conflict of interest when making a documentary

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Mar 24, 2013
by: Linda K

Thanks for addressing this topic. This exact question came up for a documentary we were working on. The documentary is about my mother and I am also a filmmaker. The producers were questioning whether I could be part of the filmmaking team since the film was about a member of my family. I did a ton of research and came to the conclusion that as long as it's clear in the actual documentary or marketing or credits that I was involved, it shouldn't be an issue.

Mar 25, 2013
It all depends...
by: Scott

If you want your story to have a non-biased, journalistic measure, then there may be a perceived conflict of interest. If you simply want to tell a good story then why would anyone care if you are friends with the lead characters? I think you run into an issue if you are trying to persuade people to buy or do something and you are misleading your audience by not stating up front that you are friends. I think it would be more appropriate to be upfront with political leaning documentaries. I want to know if a conservative or liberal think tank funded something that tries to sway my opinion. If you are simply telling a story, the conflict of interest could be part of your story. In the end, don't lie or try to cover up or be sneaky.

Good luck!!

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