I propose that, in film's very nature, somewhere embedded in its formal attributes as a mediator of the phenomenal world, there arises a capacity for evoking moral responses in those who come in contact with it.

I propose that, in film's very nature, somewhere embedded in its formal attributes as a mediator of the phenomenal world, there arises a capacity for evoking moral responses in those who come in contact with it.

By "those," I include at least three categories of people: those who make films, those who see them and those about whom films are made.

All, I submit, are morally implicated in film's manifest nature. Filmmakers must deal with the meaning of their actions as image creators; viewers are required to employ their sensibilities to deal with the meaning of the imagery they confront; and those whose behavior is scrutinized by film are, whether willing or unwilling, sophisticated or unsophisticated, accomplices in the filmmaking process and so affected by ethical considerations stemming from their involvement in that process.

I use the word moral a little the way forerunners of the discipline of anthropology in the 18th century who called themselves moral philosophers used it in their speculations about the nature of man. In the hope that it is not too great an indulgence, I will ask you to accept my using this terminology to define the tendency shown by people, everywhere, to give value to all aspects of their experience. Whatever people do, whether trivial or immense, is subject to an unrelenting process of judgment: things are good or bad, funny or dull, sympathetic or thoughtless. Language, I was told in school, is the hallmark of humanity (although erect posture competed for this accolade in the judgment of my more scientific professors) and a highly evolved aspect of language is its richness in adjectives, in words that qualitatively describe both the real and imaginary world. What I wish to convey by using the word "moral" is no more or less than that we, as human beings, are continually judging as we go through life.

In linking the idea of being moral with the phenomenon of film, I am trying to draw attention to something that has, for me, a kind of inevitability. Just as behavior encountered in terms of its own actuality evokes valuation on the part of those who experience it, behavior manifested-literally made visible and evident-in the language of film has the capacity, the inevitability, of eliciting the same response. To the extent this happens, life and film are analogous, they share properties in a way that permits one to say film has a moral dimension. It appeals to our moral faculties by requiring us to judge what we see.

Why and how does film do this? I venture that it is connected with the most fundamental business of all: survival. This is to say that being able to be moral is an adaptive faculty, especially in the face of the dilemmas arising from human experience. As people, we perhaps know things we shouldn't know and feel things we might live more comfortably by not feeling them. Perhaps our capacity for morally processing experience is really a way of dealing with whatever comes up. In so far as film is able to model life, it can be said to engage us in the same way. I am willing to step further into this metaphysical thicket and suggest that film has a way of heightening the life it portrays owing to the kind of mediation it performs. Film is not simply a mirror recording our physicality but a medium achieving a transfiguration of our ordinariness.

In my own work I have frequently thought that looking closely at lives utterly different from my own held both danger and a kind of promise. The danger was, and always is, in the possibility of the bizarre or exotic distracting and overwhelming the senses so that the human significance of what I saw and photographed was overwhelmed or beclouded by difference. The promise seems to be that, in worlds as apparently different from my own as for example the Dani of New Guinea, the Hamar of Ethiopia or the Bororo of Niger, I would be released from the familiarity and monotony, the white noise, of my own cultural surroundings, and see with a clarity of innocence an entirely believable humanity in the unfamiliar. In other words, film experience is a mediation that allows a coming to one's senses through, paradoxically, its ability to alienate or "strangify," to bring about what Erik Erikson called "distantiation." Wearing a hollow gourd to cover your penis is pretty curious haberdashery but it is also the only garment Dani men ever wore. Only the most radical cultural relativism would permit anyone to think them ordinary.

I remember, 20 years ago, worrying that this detail of apparel would deny whomever saw it the realness of the man or boy who wore it. I also worried that photographing the painful amputation of the joints of women's and girls' fingers during funeral ceremonies would disallow the act of empathy, which was so much more important to me than mere shock or surprise. In any case, the moral dimension of which I speak simply requires me to use film in such a way as to portray Dani men as whole and believable, not as perpetrators of some sartorial obscenity. On my film, they must evidence the same dignity I accord my own blood brother. (The National Geographic has explained to me that they would only be able to use still photographs in which penis sheaths were not seen or could be air brushed away. This sort of image dry cleaning is something their layout department frequently did to eliminate suggestive aspects of the human anatomy except, of course, the naked female breast, the trope that guaranteed the Geographic's popularity over the years.)

I felt that showing the custom or ritual of chopping off parts of little girls' fingers when their close male relatives were killed in warfare could easily elicit both disgust and horror. The Dani could be dismissed as barbarous, even subhuman perpetrators of unnecessary pain. The ethical dilemma was to find a way to portray the behavior yet avoid the consequences of stimulating the wrong moral response of outrage. I never felt that because the Dani wore penis sheaths and chopped off little girls' fingers they were either good or bad, per se. My purpose was to find a way to present these and a myriad other frequently odd bits of behavior in a manner that would allow anyone seeing them to exercise his or her own judgment as to their value and meaning. I had to present my evidence, so to speak, by choosing images that viewers could and would process using their powers of moral reasoning.

These issues have, I think, both a general and specific significance. For me as an image maker in a stone age New Guinea society there was the question of when, how, and why to use my camera. Another question would come up when I edited the film about when, how, and why to include a particular shot or sequence of shots. The more general questions are about such concerns as my role as a filmmaker in relation to the Dani, as well as to an audience in my own culture. Such a question is implicit in the contrast between being a "picture taker" or an "image giver." It is curious-or perhaps not curious at all-that in Western cultures the photographic act is often described as "taking-a-picture." The language is aggressive and possessive. It implies stealth and that the result is a loss caused by an act of thievery. We have all seen this meaning. In other words we have all exercised our moral judgment in instances where such is the nature of the relation between picture maker and subject.

Pornography is an example. There are all kinds of pornography-even "ethnoporn"-where filmmakers betray their subject in exploitative picture "taking." The answer or solution is not to give the cameras to the subject and with appropriate breast-beating ask them to make the decision for you. Nor is the answer to bring enough film to permit the camera to run without stopping in the hope of making no choices by including everything. To show a house being built in real time is only to see how long it takes to build a house; it does not say anything, necessarily, about the house-why it is shaped the way it is, who lives in it and especially not what the concept of shelter means.

There is no single answer. There are only the right kinds of questions and the possibility of "image giving," the opportunity to invent a pictorial answer that is faithful to the actuality and to the "image givers'" response to that actuality. It is this endeavor upon which all that I have been saying depends-if the moral dimension, the capability, of film is to be of lasting benefit.

The word "moral" has a solemn and sometimes negative connotation. It suggests all too often a mixture of righteous and narrow-mindedness. This is the last thing that I would want my use of this word to suggest. In this brief discussion I have wanted only to show that in its proclivity for calling upon our moral natures, film is demonstrating its capacity to reinvent life. When this happens, art is born and so is some fragment of human awareness. It is to this end that our skills as artists, scientists and all other kinds of questing people should always be addressed.

Robert Gardner was the Director of the Film Study Center at Harvard University from 1957 to 1997, and is an internationally known and award-winning non-fiction filmmaker and author. In its original form this article was delivered as a speech at Washington State University in 1980. Gardner's E-mail address is This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

The above article was published in Media Ethics, Spring 2007 (18:2), pp.12-13,33. in Media Ethics, Spring 2007 (18:2), pp.12-13,33.