ApproximationDocumentary, History and Staging Reality

The in-betweenness of ethics

I recently took part in a fascinating, freewheeling discussion at Chapman University, California under the title ‘Interstices: the in-betweenness of ethics’.

Hosted by the Dean of Wilkinson College of Humanities and Social Sciences, Patrick Fuery, and sitting alongside former leader of the Alliance Party of Northern Ireland, Lord John Alderdice, author Pico Iyer and Assistant Professor of International Studies and Political Science at Chapman, Crystal Murphy, the event took place on 25 February 2015. The ethics of capturing documentary images were foremost in my thinking as I prepared for that day. As someone who teaches and researches the moving image – at the moment, mainly documentary film and films that represent real events and individuals, even in a fictionalised context – I inhabit a twilight zone, a deeply in-between area – when it comes to ethics and specifically the ethics of analysing the moving image.

Teaching and watching film frequently requires an ethical response, from thinking about Alain Resnais’ re-use of images from Nazi propaganda films in Night and Fog, a film made to commemorate the 10th anniversary of the liberation of the concentration camps, to asking if the vicious anti-feminism of Kramer vs. Kramer renders it unacceptable to like the movie and be moved by the emotional father-son relationship at its heart. The ethics of spectatorship are certainly at their clearest when being confronted with challenging non-fictional images, for here the role of looking is interrogated most starkly. Don McCullin – British war photographer – once said: ‘seeing –really seeing – has nothing to do with photography’. Something similar could be said about watching films: this is always mediated seeing.

Judith Butler in Frames of War questions ‘what it means to become ethically responsive, to consider and attend to the suffering of others’. She is working specifically with Sontag’s writings on the photographs of torture in Abu Ghraib, but for my work more generally, the key issue – in terms of ethical responsiveness – is how texts function as triggers to ethical and moral reactions in viewers. And in thinking through some of these ideas in anticipation of today. I found myself most keenly confronted with some unexpected reactions: that, for instance, the more personalised the image, the more emotive the response, regardless of ethical content; and to go further, that the most emotive response tends (in me at least) to be elicited by the reaction shot – the image of someone on screen being moved by a morally challenging event: a tragedy, someone else’s death, injury, grief etc.

The level of personalisation is crucial to how effective an image is at gaining a response. To think of a generic example: the carpet bombing of Baghdad in March 2003 might have aroused significant anger and moral outrage, but the image of a despairing mother carrying her mortally injured child is far more likely to make a spectator feel that outrage.

One issue is HOW images elicit ethical responses. Another is that an inherent attribute of studying the moving image is to accept that we can never, as spectators, intervene in the events depicted, however urgent, because an image might create a very effective approximation of ‘being there’, but in enjoying that approximate status, we have to also accept that we are NOT there, that we cannot intervene. We can respond ethically, but we are still rendered emotionally passive.

A documentary such as The Act of Killing compels us to be ethically responsive, to return to Butler, but in a circumscribed way; it is problematic that Butler , later on, collapses the difference between the photographer and the viewer. I feel the divide between the two most acutely; there exists an emotional as well as ethical chasm between them. Whereas the photographer or filmmaker could act, intervene if s/he wanted to, and the choice not to intervene as an atrocity is being perpetrated raises its own hugely important ethical questions, it remains out of reach for the spectator or viewer to intervene at the time of viewing, although they can arrive at a moral, ethical position through that act of viewing that informs later actions.


Stella Bruzzi FBA

Stella Bruzzi

Stella Bruzzi is Professor of Film and Television Studies at the University of Warwick and was made a Fellow of the British Academy in 2013. She was Head of Department 2006–2008 and Chair of the Faculty of Arts at Warwick 2008–2011. She lives in Oxford with her husband and two children.


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