As a documentary filmmaker and non-profit executive, I have worked internationally with diverse communities to create equitable platforms to share grassroots solutions to global problems through the medium of documentary film. Informed by practices in the mainstream film industry, as well as the need of a prudent Board of Directors to mitigate the legal risk of this work, securing consent for the use of footage obtained was essential. With the majority of the organization’s members involved in education and social/environmental justice research, we applied our academic understanding of “informed consent” to a piece of paper, and translated it into the appropriate languages for the communities where we would be filming.
These pieces of paper proved to be counter to obtaining good footage and, more importantly, meaningful informed consent. Even when translated into the local language, we found the following to be generally true and problematic in our work:
Most people had difficulty reading and understanding the contract, and some would pretend to comprehend to save face and avoid being labelled as illiterate.
Most people did not fully understand their rights or the rights they were waiving, even if they were able to read the contract.
Most people became cautious and/or reluctant to participate when asked to sign something, which meant they were less likely to be comfortable enough to share their full truth on camera, particularly in cultures where signing a document is not how contracts/agreements are typically made. Signing a document, for some participants, also tapped into the legacy of historical colonial and other legal processes that had negatively impacted their community.
Asking someone to sign a contract before filming disrupted the natural process of bonding and developing a relationship of trust with the participant and imposed an unhelpful and unintended neocolonial power dynamic.
As such, we endeavoured to create a protocol that would address the barriers to both equity and obtaining good footage that the standard sign-this-piece-of-paper practice produced.
In developing version 2.0 of the informed consent protocol for the non-profit organization, we used the following principles to guide the contract creation:
The participant must fully understand their rights.
The contract should be an exchange: not only rights waived, but also rights granted.
Offering flexibility creates trust and reciprocity, which increases integrity and equity, while also creating the conditions necessary good filmmaking.
In practical application, this meant the contract should: use common language and avoid legalese and jargon, explain what the filmmaker is offering the participant and what the participant is offering the filmmaker, and be made in the way that is most appropriate for the participant (with the participant defining what is “appropriate”).
This third point, making the contract in the way most appropriate for the participant, led us to the most important change in the informed consent protocol: we started making consent contracts orally with participants. Regardless of literacy and culture, most people seemed more comfortable having a conversation about their rights, including those they were waiving, than being presented the same information on paper and being asked to sign the document. This proved particularly helpful in overcoming the barriers presented by the paper format for participants with visual impairment, low levels of literacy, and cultures that rarely required people to sign documents (and/or where signing has negative association, i.e., corruption, colonial history, etc.).
We adapted and began filming the first clip as the contract with every participant, and archived these consents as we would the paper versions. In this process, the filmmaker would describe the purpose of the film, the rights of the participant, and the intended uses, as well as the potential unintended uses of the film, and conclude by asking if the participant has any questions or if they are happy to proceed with those terms.
We also developed the contract to embed additional rights to promote equity for film participants that strayed from the industry norm. These rights included:
To participate in their preferred language and preferred medium of exchange (i.e., on camera, off camera, still photos only, audio only, etc.)
To remain anonymous
To withdraw their consent at a future date
To amend their footage at a future date
To participate in the edit review process before the film is finalized
To understand how to contact the filmmaker for more information or to change the status of their consent
To understand expressed intent for use as well as unintended uses that may arise
To understand the risks and benefits of their participation
Having recently joined the Arts and Science Online Multimedia Team, it is my hope that this updated informed consent process may offer a means to improve the current practice and standard of our department and, potentially, the University.
I look forward to further collaboration and development to continue to advance the accessibility, equity, and integrity of our informed consent protocol, and encourage you to contribute to this process and tailor it to support your own work requiring informed consent. Please feel free to contact the Multimedia Team at firstname.lastname@example.org with your ideas, recommendations, questions, and feedback.
Instructional Design Multimedia Support Analyst
Arts and Science Online
Faculty of Arts and Science
94 University Avenue, Queen’s University
Kingston, Ontario, Canada, K7L 3N6
Tel: (613) 533-6000 ext.74124