Taking Safety Precautions

When filmmakers speak truth to power, all kinds of vulnerabilities arise for the film teams and film subjects. That’s why we’re dedicating a subsection to how best to navigate them. Questions that come up can range from:

What are the risks for the subjects of the film?

How do I weigh them against the potential impact?

How will the film’s release affect impacted communities not shown in the film?

How do I protect myself when entering into dangerous situations?

How should I advise other members of my team?

Doc Society has been involved in a number of film projects over the last few years that required deep sensitivity and care with respect to the security and safety of all people involved in the production of the films.

For example: Virunga required rigorous safety planning and plenty of on-the-fly decisionmaking to ensure safety in a conflict zone and life and death situations for their partners and protagonists, as well as potential risks for the film team. They carried out rigorous, advanced security planning, which involved developing strategies and considerations related to extraction, digital security, physical protection, not only for contributors but also their friends and family, the possibility of exile and preparation around that and required intervention by human rights groups and institutions, work case scenario preparation for emergencies, and more. They also developed a full legal strategy to ensure that they could effectively navigate the blowback they knew they would get after the film’s release.

In South Africa, prominent ANC members were implicated in the massacre laid out by the film Miners Shot Down. When the film team toured communities, they encountered aggrieved ANC members, who in some cases threatened them and attempted to prevent the film from being screened to the community. On one occasion, an ANC leader told them it would be illegal to show the film in town. The filmmakers had lawyers on call around the clock to help them navigate these tense situations. They collaborated with local groups and enlisted supportive community members to help defend the screenings. And they alerted their lawyers, colleagues and the media as to their whereabouts at all times.

The uncertainty and feelings of being overwhelmed are all too common, especially for early-career filmmakers. Khushboo Ranka from the Insignificant Man team offered her experience in the making of that film: .

'We were first-time filmmakers who just picked up cameras and started shooting.' With a crew that was over 50% women, it was a real challenge. 'The young women on our crew were doing this kind of work in male-dominated public events and were molested and touched inappropriately often. I tried to tell them not to go back but they refused to listen. They didn’t want it to come in the way of their ability to work - as camera and sound persons. And I just didn’t have the tools I needed to engage with that situation. Even I myself felt it. So I would use the camera as my shield.'

Geek Out: Ideas for further reading


These stories and others led DocSociety to work with filmmakers, journalists, lawyers and security experts to create a new resource for documentary filmmakers: www.SafeAndSecure.film . It walks film teams through a series of questions (100 in fact) to help you identify your vulnerabilities as a group and the skills, training or support you’ll need to account for them. It also offers tips and directs you to resources and further reading to help strengthen your safety and security efforts.

Here’s some context for the kind of support you’ll find in the handbook.

Digital Security

You may not think at the outset of a project that you need to protect your communications. But this may become necessary as events unfold, so it’s advisable to think ahead and plan for privacy wherever possible. Take time with your team to think through both the digital security challenges you could be facing throughout the project and how you will communicate and share source material with your team members securely. The handbook walks you through a digital risk assessment, data management, mobile precautions, communications practices and emergency help.

Journalistic Accountability

Due diligence in research, fact-checking, good record-keeping and acknowledgement of others’ perspectives are all good journalistic practices that are good documentary filmmaking practices too, and may ultimately help defend your case if your integrity as a filmmaker is ever questioned. This is especially true for undercover filming, which can be considered an illegal invasion of privacy. When used in a journalistic context, it needs to adhere to local laws, be considered ‘in the public interest’ and deemed to be fair, so you’ll need a legal strategy to mitigate against unnecessary legal risk. The handbook walks you through libel, ethics and fact checking resources, journalistic protection resources, undercover filming resources, and journalism trainings for filmmakers.

Legal Security

It can be tough to withstand legal challenges from much better funded adversaries, even when your film and its evidence is water-tight. But the less well prepared you are, the more vulnerable you make yourself. So start thinking about your legal needs early on and engage a lawyer to advise as the production unfolds. Film teams can face challenges related to: defamation; discoverability; the privacy and the public interest; newsworthiness; contempt; copyrights and clearances; and fair use. Remember: an Errors & Omissions (E&O) insurance policy is usually a mandatory requirement for many funders and distributors who will require evidence of such a policy being in place before a film is published or otherwise exploited.

High Risk Locations

Hostile environments can occur in any country and do not necessarily entail traditional war and conflict. Filming in a ‘deep state’ where surveillance may be prevalent, or filming a volatile and violent domestic protest or civil unrest, where tensions can run high, especially if you are in a vulnerable demographic, presents similar risks and benefits. To mitigate risks, a risk assessment should be completed for each shoot. It’s also crucial to carefully assess the current level of experience of your team (from producers to camera people, fixers, drivers and translators) noting the sensitivity of their approach to working in high risk locations ahead of time. In addition, planning ahead for: where you can seek help when needed; identifying the personal safety equipment you may need; travel accommodations and logistics; medical risks and planning for both physical and mental health; communications planning; and insurance resources.

Subjects and Security

All filmmakers have legal obligations to the subjects of their films to ensure that they are both appropriately and fairly represented in the documentary. But in the case of subjects who are made vulnerable as a result of filming, most filmmakers want to consider their ethical responsibilities too, which may include protection of their identity and location or offering practical help and reassurance through to the film’s release and beyond. It’s important to discuss the risks with the subject in detail and make contingency plans with them for these eventualities, in particular should their anonymity be breached.

Public Relations Risks

This is not about whether critics like your film or not. This section explores the deliberate attempts made to discredit the filmmakers and subjects of your film and may also involve pressuring of your funders and exhibitors, in the hope of making the film and its revelations go away. For many projects, this kind of dark PR activity only materialises when the film premieres at a festival or other screenings, though for some films the battles begin much earlier and external crisis management may be required.

Click HERE to download your handbook now.

In addition, we’ve created a Safe+Secure checklist, which should be completed ahead of a film project going into production and repeated as often as your situation materially changes.

Click HERE Checklist and, if useful, your Hostile Filming Protocol.

It is absolutely our ambition to ultimately make this a resource for filmmakers everywhere. Given the size of that challenge, we have started with the US and UK and will rely on the input of international documentary organisations and independent filmmakers to go further. If you can help us - please get in touch: [email protected]

Made byDoc Society Made possible by: Ford Foundation - Just Film Bertha Foundation Sundance Institute Knight Foundation Dox Box DOCSP Ambulante MX