Safe and Secure Guidelines for Documentary Filmmakers During COVID-19

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©2018 Sundance Institute | Photo by Brandon Cruz

Should I be filming now at all?

This is the big question.

Many independent filmmakers are asking it of themselves and each other right now in the midst of COVID-19.

Is it possible to film safely now, or anytime soon, given how infectious this coronavirus is?

Every day at Sundance, we and our colleagues in the field are discussing and debating this question, as Carrie Lozano of the Independent Documentary Association poignantly describes in a recent article. She makes clear we need to take ethical responsibility for these decisions, beyond complying with the law.

It is not simply about complying with local and international law or a tick-box risk assessment. It requires a more fundamental assessment of whether there is a sufficient public interest in filming and whether the risks (and safeguards) are proportionate.

Prash Naik

COVID-19 raises significant safety and ethical issues around the responsibilities we owe to our colleagues and the people we are filming with—including the subjects and story protagonists—and also to their families and ours, to the people we live with, to neighbors, and to broadcast communities.

This is a rapidly changing situation, with policy, law, medical practice and scientific understanding in flux in every country in the world.

Every place on earth right now, even our homes, may be a “high risk location.”

This presents unique challenges for routine safety assessments. And routine they must be. “Should I film at all?” is a key question for any high-risk project, regardless of COVID-19. That’s why Sundance Institute has long been a partner in the Safe+Secure initiative, which focuses on the particular needs of documentary filmmaking.

And it’s why we’ve now joined with our partners at Doc Society and Field of Vision to create a “living document”—a new set of guidelines for independent documentary filmmakers to consider, the COVID-19 Risk Assessment. We say “living” because we will adapt and update the guidelines as the situation changes and as we receive more feedback from filmmakers.

Access the guidelines here and at Sundance Co//ab in the COVID-19 Resources section.

At Sundance Institute, we believe independent documentaries are a vital part of the public media landscape globally. They are often the medium that gets under the surface to the heart of the matter and are able to represent the lived experience of those closest to events. And in recent years, independent filmmakers have outstripped broadcast journalists in major investigations too.

So while many filmmakers are asking, “Should I be filming at all?”, the guidelines to help documentary filmmakers answer that question are quite specific to the discipline. It’s about public interest: “Put simply, the public interest is about what matters to everyone in society. It is about the common good, the general welfare and the security and well-being of everyone in the community we serve,” according to the Ethical Journalism Network.

Prash Naik, general counsel to Doc Society, emphasizes: “It is not simply about complying with local and international law or a tick-box risk assessment. It requires a more fundamental assessment of whether there is a sufficient public interest in filming and whether the risks (and safeguards) are proportionate. Each project will be different but the guiding principle will be the same.”

Whether your project is of sufficient public interest to justify the particular risks of the shoot is a matter of judgement. So it’s vital that filmmakers are able to communicate in writing the basis upon which they believe there is sufficient public interest in filming now. It’s also important that this justification is regularly reassessed, given the fast-moving pace at which facts may change.

Independence. The independent spirit and independent voice are the core of so much of what we strive for at Sundance. We are independent together. So let’s stay safe together.


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©2018 Sundance Institute | Photo by Brandon Cruz