Research Statement

“Ethics for Making”, a free online site for students, teachers and makers to explore ethics in creative arts practice was born with the ethical debates surrounding “Justine” at its heart. “Justine” is a film directed by Pratap Rughani, Director of Lotus Films UK, who developed this site produced by the Research Office at London College of Communication, University of the Arts London, where Pratap is also Professor of Documentary Practices.

– How to make a film based on consent, when your subject is not able to give her consent? Should you (or I) even attempt it, as is done in Justine?

– What is the tension between freedom of expression and responsibility to contributors? Should significant material be excluded if contributors prefer this?

The questions surface the deeper values that inform it, exposing these dynamics to scrutiny and more transparent evaluation. The ethics of how and why we make the work like that is centrally about bringing awareness to the creative treatment of lived experience and offers reflections to help develop a critical perspective around it by inviting other choices from the viewer. The site aims to help shift from black and white binary ‘ethical’/’unethical’ choices to recognise and invite a consideration of shades of grey which is often the lived experience of ethical enquiry, addressing the whole person in head, heart and social context.

“Justine” screened on film festival circuits (London Short Film Festival, Sheffield International Documentary Festival, Fastnet Film Festival) and special discussion-based screenings (Stockholm Centre for Arts; Politics & Poetics of Documentary, USC Visible Evidence; US & UK Human Rights Film Festivals). Panels included the production team and participants, critics and activists, and audiences debated the ethics of filming choices. Some of these debates were filmed and feature in Ethics for Making.

Thinking about my production experience in broadcast, activist and artists’ documentary, there are many ways to approach (or avoid) ethical questions. Often we don’t talk about difficult choices that the work may embody. “Justine” catalysed ethical issues for audiences whose questions can help makers think more fully in advance of production about the kind of work that communities featured in the work would like to see and find valuable. Conversely, productions that do not do this work to understand community contexts are exposed. Here the research process is surfaced and, crucially, the options and paths not taken. With encouragement and the right way to progress, Ethics for Making asks makers and audiences the essential questions:

– Why is the work made like that?

– Does it work? In whose interests?

– Who benefits?

– How could it be otherwise?

These are organised in the following themes: consent; responsibility; freedom; collaboration; representation. My experience is that thinking about the ethics for making creative work early on, and long before shooting key scenes, leads to better research design and richer, more creative and challenging work. That path is only a question or two away from conventional ways of doing things, and can answer those questions before they are fully allowed to trouble the makers and subjects of the project.

Some tensions are foundational and inherent in the relationships that configure the production process. The central question of how to handle consent develops differently for some broadcasters (who may seek blanket consent and broader legal rights) compared to models that privilege shared editorial control. What kind of work do we want to make?

My aspiration is that this site will help makers to do the detailed work of steady questioning and self-questioning that make us better directors; producers; camera people; people to collaborate within creative practice.

Practical explorations of film ethics from and for makers currently working are rare. More often, laying bare filmmakers’ ethics comes either in retrospect at the end of a career or in the forced focus of a legal dispute after shooting. The Ethics for Making approach invites us to deepen our practical responses and explore philosophical views by pausing to examine with practitioners the judgments that underpin them. By implication, this gives a chance to rethink our approach in planning (anticipating the problematic), shooting (because the experience of filming and the footage gathered will always be different and may throw out new questions) and editing (when the contest for meaning is provisionally resolved). It can therefore be a provocation for different stages of production as makers navigate the production of new work. Ethics for Making integrates filmmaking practice insights rooted in reflections from academic thought. It could therefore be useful to the broader student and critical community enabling us to ask more of the work before us.

“The design of the tool is also inherently ethical, as it shifts the user from a polarised view of right/wrong to a more nuanced approach coming from the truth of lived experience. This multi-faceted perspective offers up opportunities for diverse criticality.

Rughani’s view of the documentary film format as a subject matter is argued persuasively and this is used well as provocation and as example through the project. The inevitable tensions in a nuanced view of ethics, that right and wrong become relative and slippery concepts, are dealt with in the careful construction and the open and critical debate that the site provides. We are left with what is intended, that becoming aware of the deeper values in a lived experience leads us to a new appreciation of diversity through our interaction with the materials here.”

“This is a highly professional and convincing practice pedagogy submission that deftly marries theoretical discourse, aesthetic sensibility and social awareness. The work asks the reader to watch the 26-minute documentary ‘Justine’ (made by the author), which provides a portrait of the eponymous girl, her crucial social care, and her family’s response to her special needs…

Where consent, and by extension the agency of the ‘subject’, is problematised, the work is strongest in developing an ambiguity around how the earlier images are captured; in combination with direct engagement later they either drift towards didacticism or strip away some of the discourse.

This being said, the film is beautifully and sensitively wrought, with good production values and editing. The accompanying website, encouraging viewers/readers to engage with the ethic quandary connected to this (and other) material, is clear, relevant and highly timeous given the state of ‘austerity’-era social care.”

BAFTTS peer reviews.


Professor Pratap Rughani