Whose story

‘Whose story? Ethical tensions and documentary narrative’

Pratap Rughani

Lotus Films


Pratap Rughani explores questions of subjectivity and documentary ethics, examining the documentarian as a chameleon figure, both part and not part of a group; necessarily aware of her/his preferred views but, as documentary research unfolds, gradually (and more critically) aware of possible problematics.


The paper draws on practice-based examples including projects in production and two films he directed on the experiences of Black soldiers in the British army New Model Army, (Channel 4, 2000).  This paper touches on sensitive ethical and editorial challenges: is it central to any authentic documentary project to identify and feature voices that pull away from the assumed direction of a narrative or are there moments when ignoring or even self-censoring a more problematic exploration of a story is the price of creating work which coheres and creates the assumed outcome?

Conditions of production are key here and the paper concludes by raising questions of Documentarians’ ethical responsibilities in the fluid contexts of New Media. How does the shift to viral and locative media recast the traditional context of relationships between documentary makers and their subjects, or publishers, web hosts and uploaders?


For generations in the film and broadcast sector, securing permission to use documentary material ‘in all media and territories throughout the universe’ has been enough to cover legal obligations. But is consent enough in the unfolding contexts of spreadable and social media? What are subjects giving their consent to? What happens when repressive organisations or states track dissidents or activists through identifiable images or ‘digital footprints’? What considerations should producers and publishers explore in protecting sources?


Pratap Rughani is an award-winning documentary film maker and Course Director of MA Documentary Film, University of Arts, London.

His thirty broadcast credits for BBC TV, Channel 4 and the British Council, include The New Model Army Channel 4 (1999, RIMA award 2000 & shortlisted for the Grierson Contemporary Documentary Award) and Glass Houses (2004) for The British Council, as well as gallery commissions exploring documentary dynamics in fine art spaces. Many films explore the dynamics of inter-cultural communication, conceiving documentary as a crucible in which people of radically different perspectives, cultures and politics come into relation, for example with the Truth & Reconciliation Commission of the new South Africa. Research interests include the creation and ethics of newer forms of inter-cultural documentary film and the evolution of pluralized spaces through which newer understandings can evolve.


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