Weiner: The Ethics of Documentary Filmmaking

Weiner is a documentary that follows the debauched political campaign of Anthony Weiner, a defamed Congressman who attempted to run for mayor of New York in 2013. Weiner took the film community by storm when it debuted this summer, being awarded such accolades as the Sundance Festival Grand Jury Prize and was given such praise as “the best political documentary ever made” by Indiewire and an overwhelming 96% on Rotten Tomatoes. Needless to say, I was very interested in seeing this film, so when I rented it off Amazon this week, I was very excited. I will go ahead and say that this film is riveting, truly. Just absolutely enrapturing. However, there was one major quandary that presented itself to me, upon viewing this film, which is: How much is too much to show? This film has been acclaimed for its “unfettered access” into this trainwreck of a scandal. Now when they said “unfettered” they are not exaggerating. You see everything. However, at some point, this intimacy crosses the point of being entertaining and gets to the point of being intrusive. Which renders the question: What exactly are the ethics of documentary filmmaking?

Before I attempt to answer said question, I would like to make one thing very clear. I really enjoyed Weiner. I found it incredibly engrossing, but in a very unsettling way. It’s like watching a car crash or seeing someone engage in an uncomfortably awkward conversation between a man and his previously estranged high-school ex-girlfriend, upon whom he cheated with eight different women. Yes, it is that cringe-inducing. Weiner is a man with real issues, of narcissism and sex addiction, who is fascinating to watch. His story is one of mistakes, regret, and self-fulfilling prophecy. The directors, Josh Kriegman and Elyse Steinberg juxtapose archival footage from news reporters and various pundits with decidedly honest scenes from the unraveling life of Weiner and his wife, Huma Abedin. You get to witness first-hand the disintegration of Weiner’s reputation and the utter collapse of his originally promising campaign. All of this makes for simply electrifying cinema. Unfortunately, this comes at a price.

In order to explain to you just how much access we are given, I shall attempt to depict to you a scene in the film. It is the morning after Weiner has just had a complete breakdown on National Television, getting in a shouting match with a newscaster. Cut to Weiner and his wife, the esteemed Huma Abedin, sitting in the Weiner campaign offices. They are watching the footage on a laptop for the first time. Weiner is laughing hysterically in the kind of self-deprecating, do-anything-to-break-the-tension, sort of way that is completely indicative of a man at his breaking point but is trying desperately to hold on to some sort of dignity. Huma, however, is not amused. Cue brief dialogue between the two of them in which Weiner attempts to explain to her that this is something to laugh off and Huma indicates that this is far from funny. This is one of many times throughout the film that we are made privy to their marital struggles and bear witness to their relationship crumbling away in the aftermath of Weiner’s transgressions. And while this is interesting to watch and is a good accent to the narrative that they’ve created with their footage, it feels really untrustworthy because these are real people. If this was an exchange between two fictional characters in a fictional situation, I would praise this film on its honesty and admirable portrayal of the human psyche. However, this is not a fictional story. These are real people whose lives were really affected. One could argue that Weiner is not a likable person and that he deserves the treatment this film gives him. To that, I say two things. First, Weiner is being painted as a terrible person through the editing of this film. I’ve never met the man in real life, so I have no idea if he truly is as screwed-up as this movie made him be, but I can’t really judge a real person based on what I see through this documentary, as it is quite obviously biased against him. Secondly, even if Weiner is just as bad as they make him out to be, Huma Abedin is not a bad person in the slightest. So she does not deserve to have her hardship put on display in the way that she is in this movie. The purpose of making a documentary is to seek the truth and present in through a film format. I don’t really think this movie seeks the truth at all. At no point do they even attempt to explain why he continued to pursue inappropriate online relationships with other women, or why the world reacted in such a strong way. Yes they showed plenty of news footage that chronicled the descent of his campaign, but any of us could have seen that footage while it was on television, so this is quite honestly nothing new. Perhaps if they had interviewed anyone other than Weiner and those close to him and asked them how they felt about the scandal and what it meant to them. But alas, this is not the case.

The Great Werner Herzog made a documentary called Grizzly Man (It’s excellent by the way, look for it on Netflix if you have yet to see it.) which followed Timothy Treadwell, a man with obvious mental issues who dedicated his life to living with grizzly bears. The footage for the film came from Treadwell’s video diaries that he never intended for anybody to see, cut together with interviews with various people who thought Treadwell was a villain, and those who thought he was simply misunderstood. Through this format, Herzog allows the viewer to make their own opinion about the Grizzly Man, rather than directing them to a sole conclusion. If it is not yet obvious to you, this is the exact opposite of Weiner. This is my biggest problem with the film. There is no room for interpretation. Anthony Weiner is a horrible human being. At least, that’s what the movie leads you to believe. It shows you footage that I’m sure Weiner and Huma had no intention for anyone to see, cut together in such a way that with each passing scene we grow more and more disgusted with Weiner’s behavior. The entire film feels like a joke at Weiner’s expense, which is not what a documentary should be. A documentary should bring to light a story that the people should see. The destruction of a relationship between a man and wife is not a story that the people need to see. At least not to the extent that we see in Weiner. I get that he’s not a good guy, but no one deserves to be defamed to this extent. Imagine if you signed up to have a documentary made about some big project that you’re working on, but instead, the team aired your dirty laundry to the public. The story that Weiner tells is not important to the world in the long run. It’s just exposing the worst months of a man’s life to an audience of people who were all too ready to laugh at his misery. So while I was entertained, I felt incredibly dishonest and intrusive. This is just one man’s opinion, you may watch this film and feel completely different than I do. But I can’t help but believe that Weiner is just unethical. But then again, what in Hollywood isn’t?

Weiner: B

 

-Ethan Brundeen

 

Image: Anthony Weiner leading a parade in Weiner, an IFC film

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3 thoughts on “Weiner: The Ethics of Documentary Filmmaking

  1. This is an excellent analysis of the film, thank you Ethan. But having said that, I do not concur with several of your observations and conclusions. I actually think Weiner is a charismatic likeable, talented rogue who quite likely has a borderline mental illness which affects his capacity for empathy. I also think that the documentarian has taken what was offered with due regard for the ethics of such public storytelling. Weiner is a pathological attention seeker and the filmmaker obliged. The editing sticks to facts with minimal narratorial intervention (that is what makes it an ethical work). It is an excellent documentary on many levels and one that has a significant public benefit in terms of offerring understanding of humans who aspire to rule. Have a look at my review and see if I have persuaded you in any way.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you as well for your very interesting review. I agree with a lot of the points you made, I definitely think that the film is well-made and the story they tell is very interesting. In your review, you mentioned the audience may have differing views that could sway their interpretation of the movie. Obviously, my own personal experiences have affected my perception of Anthony Weiner. I suppose my biggest problem with the film was simply that I didn’t believe that the story they were telling was something I needed to see. But, I suppose I can’t really blame the directors for that, as they did what felt natural with the footage they were given. Thanks again for your point of view.

      Liked by 1 person

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