Ethics in film: Moral obligations in production and reception


Artwork by Chloe Leeson

‘Problematic’ has become the biggest buzzword of the new social media driven, social justice generation. Young girls become gradually self educated in feminist theory through sites like Tumblr and Twitter where issues of oppression can be self contained in hashtags, sparking debate in new and old media alike. Celebrities publicly declare themselves feminists like they’re unveiling a skeleton from their closet that’s suddenly become fashionable. More so than ever, the morality and ethics of individuals is up for scrutiny; one false move and you’re written off. People are beginning to realise what it means to endorse something, carefully selecting what they support and what they condemn. But where does this leave film? Do we judge a film by its ethical or its artistic content? Do we, in turn, let our qualms about the creator seep into what they create? Is there any value in abstaining from watching something because we don’t support what it conveys?

We’re faced with these sort of questions more and more frequently. It’s no surprise really, when increasing numbers of Hollywood’s elite are revealed to be the human equivalent of trash. Most people seem to have accepted striking off Bill Cosby and thus tarnishing his public work with his personal life. This suggests that now, creator and creation are inextricably linked, especially when many choose to mould their characters around warped versions of themselves. Take Lena Dunham – do we let the controversy surrounding her whitewashed casting or the treatment of her sister bleed into Girls and Tiny Furniture? Woody Allen has almost become a case study for this moral dilemma. Every film he releases, even every ushering of his name can’t be separated from Dylan Farrow’s open letter which reignited allegations of sexual abuse in 2014. We even judge those who work with him, asking ourselves if they too are supporting the view that it’s ok to ignore such serious and abhorrent claim. Where the chain of ethical consequences ends is a grey area. Some are happy enough to switch on Annie Hall and place the fictional firmly away from reality, but as the two become mixed and blurred it seems harder and harder to justify what you watch, as if it’s branded to your character. Woody Allen attracts even more controversy as so many are quick to defend him, and even a ‘neutral’ view gives weight to the white male heavyweight of film’s persistent denial, causing us to question our moral instincts and think critically about what we want to defend in situations defined by uncertainty.

There’s clearly a perceived moral obligation for a modern audience then, but is it the same thing apply to those producing and creating films? You’d think they’d be more concerned with the ethical message they’re promoting and profiting off, but it seems to be testy waters. This Hollywood Reporter Roundtable of 2014’s most prominent directors makes for interesting viewing – when the question of the ethics of direction is raised, an awkwardness is clearly evident. Some of the directors seem frustrated that they’ve been asked about this at all, and while they don’t explicitly say it, it’s clear that they believe their ethical obligation is minimal. It’s understandable to an extent, it sounds suspiciously policing to hold your art to a politically correct code. However, seeing as more and more audience members are exploring the moral message of what they watch, the disparity between the values of those behind the camera and those in front of the cinema screen is concerning. You could argue that there is no point in holding films to any moral standard if this is not a part of the film-makers thought process, but the exact difference between the absence of moral concern and immoral concern remains unclear.

There’s a rising trend in refusing to watch something as to not support one of the (what I’ve deemed) three C’s in ethical ambiguity – creator, content and consequences. American Sniper is a relevant example of this. It came from nowhere and crashed head on into critical and commercial success. Sure enough, just as fast issues were raised in each of the C’s. Creator: Clint Eastwood’s history of racism and ill treatment against those he works with. Content: American Sniper is the biopic of Chris Kyle who killed over 160 people during the Iraq War and took sadistic joy from it. Consequences: the film has glorified a war which contributed to the deaths of 133,000 civilians, and intensified islamophobic feelings which already permeate our culture. For so many this won’t be ‘just a film’ because what film innately is and inspires in audiences is incredibly powerful. It’s understandable to want to remove yourself from American Sniper entirely, and certainly to consciously decide not to line the pockets of those profiting from war. However, does this impair our ability to discuss the ethics of the film? Is there really anything to personally gain from the self-censorship of what we consume?

I would argue that refusing to watch something because of who created it is justifiable, as your money will go straight back into continuing their career. However with the content and consequences of the film, I’m undecided. It runs the risk of being accused of ignorance or blind, easily-influenced opinions – and that opens up room for a whole other ethical debate.

By Ashley Woodvine

ASHLEYAshley is a passive aggressive 16 year old from Norwich. She is a feminist, a vegetarian, and a huge fan of Taylor Swift who wears both short skirts AND t-shirts. She loves a lot of  things, mostly Breaking Bad and history. Most likely to be found crying because somebody won on a gameshow. Her favourite films are Beasts of the Southern Wild, Lost in Translation, Pulp Fiction and The Royal Tenenbaums. She blogs at pacificdaylighttime and tweets at @heartswellss.

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