The Ethics of Storytelling

Danny Klein- Blog

Our latest video about Seed Saving, Farmer Suicides and Monsanto has gotten quite a lot of positive reaction.  Thank you.  But an online friend brought up some thought provoking points and interesting questions that touched on issues that I’ve long been grappling with.  He thought the piece was an attack on Monsanto, which although it may be justified, is not consistent with The Perennial Plate’s dialogue-encouraging films.  After some deliberation he asked, “How is it that you finally decide the way your story will be told?”

When I first started making these films I made the decision to share PERSPECTIVES, not FACTS.  This decision was mostly based on the fact that I did not have the means (time/money) to make a critical documentary every week that weighs out the pros and cons, differing opinions, etc. let alone figure out my own answer to those questions.  With our two-person team, we are able instead to share the life of an individual or two and within that realm, present their point of view.  I also chose to try and make the stories be mostly positive (when possible).  The purpose of the series is to encourage a better food system in the world. So along with encouraging discussion, we wanted our films to inspire.

In creating these pieces, we may film between 3-12 hours of footage (sometimes more) film many hours of footage. And we cut it down to just 5 minutes (give or take).  In that space, there are a lot of choices to be made.  We could choose to make our characters look eloquent or angry, smart or funny.  It’s hard because you want to present the full spectrum of the person and their story, but we want to try to make something that fits within a timing that is Internet friendly.  So what we try to do is best represent the experience we had.  We try to share the message and personality of the people we meet.  We do this by sharing the main points of their message or what struck us as the most honest points.  We don’t feel the need to share all the details, and instead look for the moments of authenticity: whether that is through a joke, an awkward moment or talking about a completely different subject.

Which brings us back to our latest video and Dr. Vandana Shiva. She is a passionate woman who is at war with pesticides, with GMOS… with Monsanto.  To share an interview with her without presenting that passion would be to misrepresent her.   In fact, the first draft of our video didn’t have the initial 2-minute interview decrying Monsanto.  We were initially afraid that people would be turned off by the bias of the message, especially considering how difficult it is to find TRUTH around these issues (much of the information around GMOs and Farmer Suicides is up for debate: http://www.ifpri.org/sites/default/files/publications/ifpridp00808.pdf ).  So in Vandana’s opening statement in our video, some people might claim that is untrue, or an exaggeration.  To understand and share all sides, we would need to do a full documentary on the subject.  So do we leave out her passionate call to action that she claims to be true?   We thought it was important to share her thoughts on Farmer Suicides in order to properly frame her work in Seed Saving.

I guess this post is sort of like a get out of jail free card…  by saying we aren’t sharing facts, but rather one person’s perspective, that takes us out of the blame of misinformation —  A morally dubious position to be in, especially in this age of misinformation.  But to tell you the truth: it’s one of the only honest places to be.  With such partisanship in politics, it’s hard to know where any truth lies.  You can’t believe studies, you can’t believe speeches or even “facts” – so it becomes difficult to share anything but a person’s passion.  As the Gandhi quote at the end of the video says “A ‘No’ uttered from the deepest conviction is better than a ‘Yes’ merely uttered to please, or worse, to avoid trouble”.  We wanted to share Dr. Vandana Shiva’s “NO”.  We think that despite her bias, she is a woman with deep conviction who represents a perspective and idea that we can get behind.  That being said, with all of our films, we hope that you use it as a jumping off point for more discovery, discussion and the opportunity to make up your own mind.  I would love to hear your thoughts on the subject.  Thanks!

  • http://twitter.com/fully kmfullerton

    My view is that there are people who have more “informed” perspective than others…I would say Vandana Shiva is one of them and the fact is she can express that perspective much better than I; she gives me the ‘language’ for my perspective to share with others. So, I look for those perspectives and if I have questions then I look for the facts. I look for the perspective of Perennial Plate as being informed and in line and supportive of my perspective. I will seek perspective from what I consider the opposite view to mine to see if there is something I can glean. Usually, I find they have misused or misrepresented facts to support their perspective. Do those with whom I agree do that? Sometimes, but it will not resonate and I will check the facts. The people who rely blindly on perspective to create their foundation of beliefs who will be misinformed or less likely to consider a view others. They do not know how to use facts or look for facts because they use perspective to support their ‘beliefs’.

  • Sewassbe

    Is it an attack if it is true? Could anything that Vandana Shiva said be construed as slander? She did not accuse Monsanto of breaking the law, or stealing, or any other illegal activity. She merely stated fact as she has experienced it.

    Of course, the fact that I agree with her completely may color my interpretation, but I thought it was a wonderful film that DOES encourage dialogue. Except the dialogue is: “Which direction should the future of farming take? Which direction is the most beneficial for ordinary people? And which is the most beneficial for nation-building and global corporations?” This is a conversation that is not being had, and it needs to. The US could learn a lot from India in terms of the local and global impacts of GM agriculture.

  • http://twitter.com/EveryLastMorsel Todd Jones

    This is a great explanation of the creative process, Daniel. Thanks for sharing. There are many truths that can be experienced through the magic of film, and Perennial Plate certainly does a beautiful job of creating authentic experiences. Your trip through India has resulted in some of my favorites. Keep up the great work!

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Pam-Carrico/1729885217 Pam Carrico

    You absolutely could NOT have made that video without all the parts you included! Dr Shiva is a passionate force and that was clearly portrayed. I have always seen your work as a peek into the lives of others, never the gospel. I think you’ve represented your mission very well. Keep it up!

  • Justin

    I support Vandana Shiva’s NO. It has depth and common sense. The bottom line is life not money. Though I do think many people might not understand the feminism behind it. I support it and it makes total sense. It might sound like a power “struggle” or a demonization of men and patriarchy. In fact I think it just is the way nature works. The female creates life and men should be strong and supportive of that. That is another discussion.

  • http://www.facebook.com/catcatdogcat Erik Schmitz

    The Ghandi quote served as the perfect digestif for the video. Thank you for sharing it.

  • Gail

    Thank you for the video. How can we believe Monsanto’s gmos are a good thing, Human beings (corporate and otherwise) have an impressive ability to believe they can manipulate and control the natural world. Whether it’s done out of misguided benevolence, or the drive for money and power, we have failed miserably and put our ourselves and our planet at risk.

  • http://www.facebook.com/catcatdogcat Erik Schmitz

    “Younger Self—who can be as bulky and stubborn as the most cantankerous three-year-old—is not impressed by words. Like a native of Missouri, it wants to be shown. To arouse its interest, we must seduce it with pretty pictures and pleasurable sensations–take it out dining and dancing as it were. Only in this way can Deep Self be reached.”
    ~Starhawk Theologian

  • Gill

    I think you offered a opportunity for the Dr to share her feelings, and perceptions that the mainstream, and corporate media people would not offer up. Be proud. It would not be uncommon to make a statement at the top of the story that that is your intent. But I think most people who enjoy your work are smart enough to figure that out on their own. I could go on but lil dog is “talking” to me about going out… You guys keep on keepin’ on! Peace Gill

  • Robyn Perry

    The suggestion that the Perennial Plate shouldn’t tell the story about what Monsanto does to agriculture is nuts!, if you’ll pardon my bluntness. What you’re doing is amplifying the voice of someone who has much less power in the struggle: Vandana Shiva vs. Monsanto? Obviously the power and money and influence are on the side of Monsanto. It’s not like it’s a fair fight. That doesn’t mean the Perennial Plate shouldn’t look for truth and do your best to tell the facts. But it means that the allegations are misguided that you’re “attacking Monsanto” with a video that reveals the human lives that are devastated by Monsanto’s corporate practices. Really, do we think Monsanto would play fair to tell their side of the story? You’re fully on the side of integrity in telling it this way. Real people like Vandana Shiva need all the help they can get to tell their stories. Nice work!

  • http://www.chuckeats.com/ ChuckEats

    “perspectives, not facts” sums it up imo.

    there are infinite choices anyone makes when creating anything fact-based that, ultimately, bias its point of view. from choice of words to camera angles to background music to un-intentional editing; as long as the context of the final piece is clear, i think that is all it owes to its audience.

    and to anyone following your series, the context should be very clear – these are snapshots of people around the world, passionate about food, in their own ways.

  • danielpklein

    Thank you for the comments and support.

  • Foody2 and Oliver

    Very honorable not skirting the question. Rewarding to hear what goes into producing each video, and even more so with topics like the Seed Savers. Makes it more impressive to realize what it takes to be a conduit. Great explanation of Perennial Plate’s purpose.

  • http://www.facebook.com/johngarcianyc John Garcia

    As a long-time journalist I will say something we all know: there is no such thing as a completely objective view. We all see life through a lens and we all tell stories through those lenses. Sometimes we’re able to tell the multitude of sides of each story, sometimes we have to limit ourselves to what is in front of us. You told a compelling story. I am intelligent to know that if i want to hear Monsanto’s take on your story, I should seek out Monsanto. I’m sure their piece will have similar amounts of objectivity. Then I’ll have two sides of the story. And I’m sure there are many other sides.

    My thought is this: This is the first piece I saw of yours and I found it to be one damm good piece of story telling. I will be following your travels.

  • Kelly

    What we are experiencing as of late – with the advent of this internet and the ease of technology to travel and record many people and voices – is a wide opening to the world. Perhaps as Americans, we have been isolated for so long (geographically and by limited media sources), that some of these new voices are shocking. I went to UC Berkeley in the late 80s. Vandana Shiva and her work was taught among other academic works. She is a valued member of the academic community, at least at that university. As a documentary filmmaker myself, this question of ethics and covering all sides of the story comes up often. I made a documentary about the rise and fall of an African kingdom. Doing research was interesting. We relied on an oral historian from the kingdom who told most of the story of his people over the past 100 years. But people would say it is an oral history, how can we be sure it is the truth. We also had access to written archives as kept by mostly colonists. Who is to say that the history written down was more “true” or somehow more valid? Most of that recorded history was by colonial military leaders and missionaries with a strong one-sided objective in their missions. Their version of history could not be the absolute truth either. Somehow as audiences – of mainstream news even or supposedly objective storytelling – we feel that we are given or owed the truth. But should we invest all that power to the news outlets, the documentary filmmakers, and other producers of media and information? A favorite quote in my humble opinion that ironically rings the most truth is from George Carlin: “Don’t just teach your children to read, teach them to question what they read. Teach them to question everything.” And to producers of stories, perspectives are relevant, even if it is just a snapshot of a perspective. Personally I rather hear directly what an Indian farmer has to say rather than reading about one in the NYT.

  • murali

    amazing explanation.

    “A ‘No’ uttered from the deepest conviction is better than a ‘Yes’ merely uttered to please, or worse, to avoid trouble”

  • Gabe!

    Beautiful piece! What’s the last thing she says? “And men who ____.” ?

  • KingBee

    Bzz! Great work. Thanks for sharing!

  • Chuck Landrey

    What a thoughtful post, and what a wonderful video. Keep doing what you’re doing.

  • okkaro

    That criticism sounds like Monsanto PR maneuvering. Corporations do not need defending. Monsanto can manipulate and craft their message with great ease. They can spend millions spinning their image to conceal the destructive biotechnology they unleash into our environment in the name of “helping.”

    Whereas Vandana Shiva supports a grass roots movement in India that is trying to preserve generational farming methods that preserve the health of the planet and that keeps the power in the local farmers hands. Farmers don’t commit suicide and end their life lightly.

    You be the judge… clearly to criticize this is absurd!

  • Mary Austin Talley

    I agree.