Every documentary has to get paid for somehow. When does sponsorship put the documentary’s claim to be independent, accurate truth-telling at risk? A new investigative piece by Tim Schwab at the nonprofit news site 100Reporters takes a hard, long look at that question, and the answers aren’t pretty.

Money talks.

Using several films as case study, he argues that without any kind of field-wide ethics code, “a culture of financing has emerged that makes it ever harder for audiences to discern nonfiction from fiction, documentary from public relations, news from fake news.” Ouch. Because people trust documentaries.

Take, for instance, Scott Hamilton Kennedy’s Food Evolution, a pro-GMO film that buries its commissioning from a Big-Ag-related organization, the Institute for Food Technology, in small print in the credits. Schwab interviews both disgruntled experts like Michael Pollan and Marion Nestle, who believe they are misrepresented, and Kennedy, who says storytellers have to make tough choices about what stays and goes. He also digs into the leadership of the commissioning organization, which makes conflict of interest likely. Scott Hamilton Kenney has earned a stellar reputation as a conscientious, caring filmmaker, so it makes excellent sense that IFT went to him.

It’s painful to read Schwab’s analysis, if you know and admire Scott Hamilton Kennedy’s past work, as I do enthusiastically. And it’s not just Kennedy, either. Schwab, focusing only on sponsorships that have financial benefits for the sponsor, finds a clutch of films funded by agricultural interests and directed by reputable filmmakers, with viewpoints closely aligned to those of the funders.

Where’s the line?

There’s no consensus in the field on what’s over the line, as I’ve seen again and again. And it’s certainly not easy to assert direct conflict of interest from sponsorship, although sometimes it’s pretty easy to suspect. Patrick Creadon, another indie filmmaker who’s won a sterling reputation, made I.O.U.S.A (2008), a film that follows two deficit-hawks, Robert Bixby and David Walker, on a national tour decrying the national debt. The film was funded by the Peter G. Peterson Foundation, which has a single issue of reducing national debt. David Walker became CEO of the Peterson Foundation just as the film released, and promptly purchased it; Sundance press materials, issued the month before, included the foundation’s support. The deficit-hawk alarmist stance on the national debt is often taken by libertarians and small-government conservatives who also argue against entitlement and social safety net programs. The film provides an uncritical, alarmist view of the dangers of a federal deficit, even though many economists warn against demonizing deficits in themselves. Creadon, of course, has no economic credentials of his own. The film debuted at Sundance Film Festival and went on to be broadcast on CNN.

Rory Kennedy, another highly regarded filmmaker who has won her reputation with fearless social-issue films, released Without a Net: The Digital Divide in America in 2017. It focuses on the need for better Internet connections in schools, which indeed is an endemic problem, particularly in rural areas. The film was fully funded by the phone company Verizon, as is easy to see in the promotional materials and credits. It does not touch on any of the politics of the e-rate, the federal provisions for discounts for school (and other non-profit institutional) telecom and Internet access. The e-rate has been chronically subject to scandal, some of it associated with the behavior of telecommunications companies, including Verizon, that benefit from e-rate contracts and overcharge. Certainly Verizon could use a good public image for its bottom-line-improving e-rate work, and if e-rate subsidies increase that will be good for business. Kennedy is no telecom policy expert, and doesn’t represent herself as one either. The film showed at festivals. It was of course represented as independent documentary.

Asking the hard questions.

Should such work be more clearly labelled as sponsored or commissioned? What is the responsibility of a filmmaker to investigate the issues and contexts of commissioned assignments? If the filmmaker agrees with the perspective of the funder, does that make it OK? If you only take money from vested interests for promotion and engagement, is that ethically clean?

What would happen if we asked such questions of each other, and tried to find out what filmmakers really think is over the line?

Schwab’s article is replete with troubling examples of films with potential conflicts of interest. He also accurately notes that journalistic ethics are not typically taught in film schools. As well, Schwab notes, most film critics don’t take the significant time and effort it takes to research a film’s funding ties and their implications.

Something he doesn’t discuss is the small-worldism of journalism about documentary film. In an environment where most indies feel perpetually embattled, where the arts are underfunded, where film festivals are also a poor man’s marketplace, where much arts journalism is done for free or a token payment, and where PR people control access to the big names, there are plenty of reasons why journalists don’t want to pick apart a filmmaker’s ethical choices. Even someone as insulated as myself, who has health insurance paid for with a teaching job, thinks twice. When I wrote a piece on the whiteness of film festivals, I spent some time wondering if I’d ever get a press pass again.

And, as I told Schwab for his article (and he quotes), filmmakers avoid even in-group ethics discussions. After we published our study on the ethical challenges filmmakers face, Honest Truths, I heard plenty of grateful comments from filmmakers privately. But years later, we are still holding ethics panels at film festivals and conferences on an off-the-record basis only. And the very notion of articulating ethics standards still sounds like crazytalk to many filmmakers.

The burgeoning of documentary has come with a wild expansion of funding partners, sometimes out of the tech sector and also from the one-percent that’s benefiting from growing income inequality. And that has created new standards nightmares for some distributors. Public broadcasting’s distinct value-add is its non-profit, educational legitimacy. So PBS has begun tightening up its crediting and financing standards to match the new challenges in tracking down sponsorship implications, and the Independent Television Service has followed as well. Filmmakers who are interested in that market might have to pay more attention to the implications of funders’ interests. But they also have plenty of other venues that don’t care nearly as much.