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The teacher and some of the parents at a French school portrayed in the documentary, To Be and to Have (Etre et Avoir) are suing the filmmakers to try and get some of the profits from the film’s unexpected box office success. They’re not alone, and spurred by high profile successes like Bowling for Columbine, Fahrenheit 9/11, Capturing the Friedmans and Super Size Me, other doco subjects (eg President Bush, McDonalds, serial killers) could soon ask for their doco dollar. Don’t go there, warns Andrew L. Urban.

If you think cheque book journalism is a bad thing, wait till dollar docos turn up on our screens. That’s the doco that is made by otherwise intelligent filmmakers who promise to give their subjects a cut of any profits – points in the back end, as Hollywood jargon would have it. Well, a point in the back end in this scenario should be a pointy foot up the bum of any doco subject who asks for it.

A feature length documentary is basically a news feature. Such a doco takes a subject and reveals some of its depth, puts it in context and often seeks various opinions on it. In the case of To Have and To Be, the French doco about a school where a single teacher takes a small group of youngsters through their education years, the teacher and the children and their parents (little seen) go about their daily routines in front of the camera.

The parents claim they were told “only that it was going to be a documentary – now it’s a successful film.” There’s a tell-tale remark: they were expecting it to languish in the filmmaker’s bottom draw. Now it’s a big box office success, they want some of the money. There have been no reports of how these people would have responded had the filmmakers asked them to pay for the cost of production at the beginning. 

"laughably silly"

The notion of documentary subjects being paid – if and when the film is in profit – is laughably silly. How much should President Bush get from Michael Moore for his role in Fahrenheit 9/11? Does being the subject but not actually interviewed, reduce the share? Should the local councillors portrayed in the Australian doco, Rats in The Ranks, receive a doco dollar?

Should the corrupt cops featured in docos like Blue Murder get a slice of the action? If so, what slice? How much profit can the filmmakers take (investors risking their cash included) before the subjects step in? And how much should they get? Considering the lack of a union for doco subjects, should we form one? Does being a McDonald’s executive or shareholder or employee entitle you to a doco dollar from Super Size Me? If not why not? 

Consider the awful implications if one of these French claims is successful. Every doco maker will pray for his or her film to be a commercial failure. Subjects will be framed out of the image so they can’t claim to be in the film. The names of all interview subjects will be falsified. The blank screen will now consist of code named participants doing unrecognisable things unseen by the camera.

The alternative, for the intrepid filmmaker, is to hire professional actors under a standard contract and re-enact everything. That’s called a feature film, and has an equal chance of commercial failure. But the actors aren’t lining up to help fund the production, either.

"a share of the profits"

I’m happy to do super bitchy, highly biased, tantrum-driven interviews about this topic with any media – but reserve the right to claim a share of the profits from those that make some money. (Nine Network, I’m waiting for the call…)

Published June 24, 2004

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To Be And To Have

Supersize Me

Fahrenheit 911

Bowling for Columbine

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