In France this summer people kept recommending I watch the documentary ?ätre et avoir, a documentary following an amazing teacher in a one-room French rural school. The film was a huge success, making ‚Ǩ2 million in profits, and the teacher, Georges Lopez, having been paid nothing for his immense involvement in the film, felt exploited. So he sued, asking to be paid as an actor, and also arguing that his teaching methods were his intellectual property and therefore protected. He lost, as The Guardian reports, and filmmakers are thrilled that they can continue to make documentaries without paying their subjects. (Admittedly he turned down an offer of ‚Ǩ37,500 the film-makers made him after he sued. Also, he’s appealing, and the parents of the kids in the film are asking ‚Ǩ20,000 for each child, so the case isn’t over yet.)

There are parallels here to research ethics, you know, the idea that we have the right to simply describe, define and present others. Although I agree with Eirik that to patent or copyright teaching methods would be detrimental to culture and learning, it seems wrong to me that the people who live the story should be seen as less important than the people who frame the story. These peoples’ lives are made public, and they’re made public by someone else, portrayed not as they would portray themselves. That is not a small thing. But then history has always been written by the winners writers:

Mr Lopez could not be considered a “co-author” of the film because he had not taken part in decisions on how to shoot the documentary. (Guardian 29/9)

I guess the moral is simply that if someone’s making a documentary about you, you should make sure the contract includes a line about what portion you get of any profits the film makes.

4 thoughts on “rights of those written about?

  1. bicyclemark

    I knew underneath that sweet fatherly persona there was a good-ol-fashion take-em-to-court spirit.

  2. Jill

    Ha! I haven’t actually seen the film yet, but you’re right, it does sound a little out of character. Personally I think I would have taken the ‚Ǩ37,500 as quite reasonable pay for 58 days, even with all the public attention. It’s been positive attention, after all.

  3. Lars

    A Norwegian example: The makers of the film “Heftig og begeistret” (“Cool and crazy”) settled out of court and agreed to pay the men’s choir that the hugely successful film is about a five-figure sum (in NOK). I guess the case of ?Ösne Seierstads bookdealer is also sort of related.
    That said, most journalists and documentary filmmakers would be sceptical about paying their sources to participate. Paying for stories is something associated with the scandal press and David Beckham’s mistresses.

  4. Alvaro

    I agree with you that when portraying people the matter of ethics is great importance. Problems arise when the subject of the portrait feels misrepresented. This is not the case, though.

    For me it is sad to hear that such powerful and beautiful film (probably because of its box office success) has ended in a court trial. I also think that George Lopez forgets that the idea of the film was not his and that a whole team of people made possible the making of the film.

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