“Bitter Honey” Conundrum: Gaining Informed Consent (Part 2 of 2)

If you haven’t read Part 1, it can be found HERE


When it comes to gaining consent ethically, there are two types—legal consent and polite permission. There is legal consent in the sense that you get the subjects to sign off saying that they are aware that they are being filmed and that you own all of the footage.

Example of one of our consent forms.

Example of one of our consent forms.

It is important to understand what this moral imperative of gaining informed consent entails. Karl G. Heider believes that the notion of “informed consent” in filmmaking is virtually a fallacy:

“It really is not possible for people to give fully informed permission for their images to be used in a film…The problem is that at the moment of shooting no one can really know how the footage will turn our or how he or she will appear. And the subject certainly cannot anticipate what will be preserved, omitted, or juxtaposed during the editing.”

I don’t believe that Dr. Heider’s remarks are false, but I believe that they are irrelevant in the legal sense of gaining informed consent. It is each individual’s choice whether or not to sign the consent form—they are not being forced. For our film on polygamy, we have received legal consent—in the form of signed releases—from all of our subjects. These forms are usually signed immediately after the first session of shooting, when subjects are being paid for taking the time to speak with us.

However, distinct from this preliminary legal consent, there is the question of getting the subject’s permission to show the film and their blessing once they have seen how you have edited and constructed their experience in the final product. For us, this is a work-in-progress. Where we last left off, we were at the screening with the polygamous co-wives from the film and they took issue with one scene in particular. The scene in question deals with one of the husbands going to a brothel (café) and putting his arm around one of the prostitutes.

Women’s Discussion from Elemental Productions Channel

One thing that I thought was very interesting was that the women did not have a problem with the film being released as-is if it were only in the United States. However, once they became aware that we intend for the film to have an educational impact on-the-ground in Bali, they were hesitant to give their permission. I thought that this was interesting because they wouldn’t be embarrassed about their private family issues being revealed on a global stage, but they would on a local one. It made me think of how it must have been easier for ethnographic filmmakers to gain consent before the Internet. Today, it is not enough for them to give consent to show the film in the US and not in Bali. In the age of Facebook and YouTube, no longer are subjects and audiences separated by tens of thousands of miles.

So now we reach our present-day ethical dilemma. The women are uncomfortable with the film being shown with the café scene. They feel that it is shameful and “unrelated” to the issue of polygamy. However, we feel that the fact that the men continue to seek sexual encounters with prostitutes outside of their relationships is very much related to female suffering in Balinese polygamous marriages. In fact, with the high rates of sexually transmitted diseases amongst sex workers in Bali, it is likely that the husbands will contract a disease and bring it back home to their wives. I cannot speak for everyone at Elemental Productions, but some believe that the scene in question is pivotal and dramatic, and drives home the point that the heightened risk of HIV/AIDS exposure within these marriages could eventually lead to death. As such, the scene cannot be removed.

Screen Shot 2013-11-05 at 6.06.30 PM

So the question that faces us now is whether or not to take the scene out. Since we already have signed informed consent releases, there is no legal obligation to remove the scene, only the consideration of the wishes of our subjects. What I view as an ethical predicament can be effectively summed up by Karl Heider’s quote,

“The dilemma is evident. If a filmmaker acknowledges an obligation to obtain permission, or releases, from the people in the film, then how can the filmmaker arbitrarily declare that the obligation is fulfilled at the time of shooting and that thereafter the subjects have no more rights? On the other hand, if the subjects exercised rights of review throughout, then few films would ever be finished.”

At this point, I see three options lain before us. Either we can:

A)   Remove the scene from the film,

B)   Convince the wives of the scene’s merit and its pivotal role in the film and receive their consent to keep it in the film,

C)   Keep the scene in the film against the wishes of the wives.

I do not yet know what path we will take, but it will surely come after much consideration and discussion of anthropological ethics and ethical filmmaking. Stay tuned to the “ETHICS” tab of Psycho Cultural Cinema to see how it all turns out. And let me know what you think in the comments below!

Julia Zsolnay

Julia Zsolnay graduated from UCLA with a degree in Anthropology and has been working at Elemental Productions since 2012.


  • Reply November 16, 2013

    Jay Ruby

    As an anthropologist I believe we have a moral obligation to not ask subjects to sign any release until they have seem at least a rough cut of any film.

  • Robert Lemelson
    Reply November 16, 2013

    Robert Lemelson

    Thank you Prof Ruby for your comment. It is really an important issue, and I am glad you raised it. I will take up this complex issue in a future post in more detail. Briefly, I think there are multiple ways and contexts in which informed consent operates, and I think Julia’s post addressed some of the complexity we as a production company deal with. With projects of our sort, that are shot over the course of years, and indeed now decades, we believe it is important to get an initial consent and signed release at the first meeting. That said, and as Julia’s post notes, the forms of consent and “releases” (which in a legal litigation sense have little or no meaning when the subjects are in Indonesia and the filmmakers/anthropologist from the USA, but do have meaning in terms of “Errors and Omissions” {E&O insurance issues, without which it is difficult to commercially release films in the US) are extraordinarily complex, and we continuously think through and discuss with our subjects as the projects progress. If we waited till there was rough cut, some of the subjects may not be available ( if they are deceased, or disappeared, both of which have occurred in the course of many years), and a project could be potentially scuttled because of its lack. So in this sense the formality of a release really ( absent the legal implications) begins an ongoing conversation between ourselves and our subjects/participants/friends whom we film. We approach each project and subject as ethically as possible, and I am happy to report that in over 15 years of filming, we have gained “real” ( eg. not just formal, but based on extensive disucssions) informed consent and releases from all of our subjects.

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