Publicity still for Child of Mine, Fresh Films for Channel Four, UK, 1996. Photo: Lizzie Thynne

Dyke TV series logo, Channel Four 1995-1999

Dyke TV series continuity sequence

Intertitle, Child of Mine

Publicity still for After the Revolution. Director: Lizzie Thynne, Piranha Productions for Out, Channel Four, 1994

Child of Mine: Donna C. and Donna W., first lesbian parents to win legal recognition in the UK

Donna W: “We’d been together 6 weeks when we decided to have a baby together.”

Donna W: “ We both wanted to be parents of the child and in order for us to do that legally the only way was to go and see a solicitor."

Report on Donnas’ case, Manchester Evening News, 1994

Report on Donnas’ case, Sunday Mirror, 1994.

Liz: “It’s been like every bit of me aches to hold him.”

Liz dressing for court

Title card: Liz’s reunion with Susan

Underexposed shot of Liz in her final interview

Dramatic reenactment of access meeting with John

Dramatic reenactment of John playing

Report about Liz’s case drawn from Child of Mine, Daily Mail, 27 September 1996

Feature about Steph, Sharon and their son, Daily Telegraph, 26 September 1996

Liz reads the court report about her suitability as a parent: “Me leaving has been taken into account – this is seen as something that is really important.”

Liz packing John’s things.



Ethics, politics and representation in Child of Mine, a television documentary on lesbian parenting

by Lizzie Thynne

While many documentary productions involve difficult negotiations with contributors, these negotiations and interactions take on a different character when the filmmaker is implicated in more direct ways with the people being filmed — either because, for instance, they are members of the same family[1], [open endnotes in new window] or in the example I will discuss here, because they come from the same community. The situation I explore in this article highlights the ways in which issues relating to consent and representation are sometimes determined by both filmmaker and subject having competing sets of obligations and motivations. Critics of documentary have examined conflicts between institutional constraints and political and aesthetic commitments in relation to various historical production contexts, notably the British Documentary Movement[2]. The program I discuss here, however, took place in a very unusual context — as part of a lesbian and gay magazine series on a major UK television channel; as such it presented particular challenges regarding the ethics and politics of representation. The film in question was Child of Mine, a forty-minute documentary about lesbian parenting rights, which a production company called Fresh Films hired me to produce and direct for Channel Four Television in 1996.

I worked for several years a freelancer, initially as a researcher and production manager and later as a producer/director. Then I returned to full-time university teaching, conducting courses on video production and film/media studies. My academic research has since drawn on my commercial work in film and television so that the present study reflects my position as someone whose experience straddles both the higher education and the production sectors. I continue to make films for festival and gallery contexts. At present I no longer make films for broadcast and have not attempted to do so. This is because of wanting to develop a more experimental approach in my films. My decision also reflects my distress with the ethical and political compromises that such production increasingly often entails in relation to the instrumentalization and manipulation of contributors.

Making Child of Mine confronted me with a number of conflicting issues relating to my responsibilities to the main contributor, Liz, to the LGBT (lesbian-gay-bisexual-transgender) community[3] of which I am a member, to the channel that had commissioned the film as well to my own desires and ambitions as a filmmaker. In reflecting on these dilemmas and on the meanings generated by this documentary, I include not only my own perceptions of this experience but that of the main contributor to the program, Liz, whom I re-interviewed in 2009.

This investigation is part of a larger academic study exploring the nature of encounters between subjects and producers in documentary and reality television. In the first instance, I propose to interview the subjects of films I worked on myself.[4] Since documentary ethics must concern itself with how participating in a film has an impact on the people in it, researching their feelings and thoughts about their involvement would seem to be an important way to illuminate the inter-subjective relations which determine the film’s character. A concern with such relations is not new in the history of documentary, although it is much rarer in the context of broadcast television.[5] Jean Rouch was the first to foreground the interaction of subjects and filmmakers as constituting what is documented in non-fiction film[6], but this approach has generally been elided in the televisual genre. Television prefers to make invisible the interactions which determine content, style and what is said on or done camera. It is in the process of moving from the pututative and profilmic realities to the screened reality that the gaps open between the contributors and the director’s perceptions of a project. I look here both at the understandings and misapprehensions that were apparent at each stage of making Child of Mine.

The results of my more recent interview with Liz are discussed in the second half of this essay. In this interview’s new context — that of academic research — I spoke to her within the framework of the ethical guidelines relating to research subjects developed in academic contexts, specifically those of my own university’s “Research Governance Framework.” With reference to those guidelines the key principle I have followed is this:

“Ethical practice […] requires that participants, at a minimum, be fully informed, free to volunteer without inducement, free to opt out at any time without redress, and be fully protected in regard to safety.”[7]

I conclude my discussion of documentary ethics in relation to Child of Mine by exploring how the process of mediation involved in filmmaking and broadcast/film exhibition raises other representational issues — which go beyond the dominant ethical frameworks of either a professional or an academic context.

Background to the film and its production

Child of Mine was pivotal for my career in television. It was made for “Dyke TV” (1995) one of the last seasons of gay factual programming to come out of the UK station, Channel Four. “Dyke TV,” as the title suggests, was about lesbians made by lesbian directors and consisted of new commissions, purchased films and repeated items from the previous lesbian and gay series on the channel (“Out on Tuesday” (1989-1990) and “Out” (1991-1994).

Channel Four was established in 1982 under Margaret Thatcher’s government to cater to a greater diversity of audiences than were being addressed by the then duopoly of the BBC and ITV (the network of associated commercial channels called “Independent Televsion”). (Queers were not necessarily what she had in mind). The Tories also intended Channel Four’s corporate structure to challenge the broadcasting establishment and the BBC in particular by demonstrating that independent suppliers to the new publisher-broadcaster channel could make programs much more cheaply than the relatively expensive, in-house productions largely undertaken by the existing stations.[8] It was an extraordinary period in the history of UK television when identity politics and a commitment to access via the Channel’s Independent Film and Video Dept and commissioning editors, Caroline Spry and Jacquie Lawrence, allowed beginning television directors like myself the chance to reach national audiences and explore stories and experiences that until then had been scarcely represented on air. The department’s “independence,” referred to in its title, was somewhat different than that of ITV, referring instead to a group of smaller scale, radical filmmakers who had lobbied for the creation of the channel. The commissioning editors, all the directors and many of the producers working on the Out and Dyke TV series were lesbian or gay, and some set up small companies to deliver output for the department. Making programs about our community made many of us very conscious of the “burden of representation” at the same time as we wanted to interrogate the concept of “positive images,” which did not reflect the diversity of our identities and experiences.[9]

At the time I began to work on programs for Channel Four, I had been active in queer film culture through my work as Education Officer at the Tyneside Cinema in Newcastle (1987-88). Under programmer Peter Packer, the Tyneside pioneered a season of lesbian and gay films in 1986-87, which developed into London Lesbian and Gay Film Festival. In my role at the cinema I organized debates and courses around the program, including around issues of gender and sexuality. Prior to this I had undertaken Ph.D. research in literature at the University of Sussex and had long been active as in feminist campaigns as well as in women’s studies in adult education.

In 1989 I began working with the then-thriving independent film sector in the North East of Britain, mainly with small companies making programs for Channel Four. The productions on which I worked continued to reflect my commitment to women’s, lesbian and socialist politics.

The film Child of Mine arose out of a contact I had with a Scottish producer, Charlie Stuart, who had heard about a woman who was a lesbian co-parent taking legal action to get access to a child conceived in a relationship with her ex-partner, Susan. Susan had borne the child using Liz’s brother as the donor. But six months after the boy’s birth, Liz and Susan split up, and Susan was now denying Liz contact with him. Charlie asked me to direct the film as he became aware of my work on Channel Four’s Out, including After the Revolution (1994) on LGBT experiences under communism. After securing development money, the film was commissioned from Charlie’s company for the series Dyke TV.

At the time I met her, Liz was determined to pursue her case right up to the Court of Session, the highest court in Scotland, if need be and even to seek custody — making legal history in the country. The story clearly could bring to the fore the personal consequences of wider issues, especially the need to recognize both lesbian co-parents and significant others who are not biological parents but who are involved in raising a child. For me, it also seemed a great opportunity work in a more narrative way than I had before: I would follow unfolding events in a way that would explore the emotional and social complexity of the issues facing lesbian mothers. At another level, the project also touched aspects of my own history — especially my mother’s illness in my teens. The whole issue of who can and who can’t be a parent had a particular resonance for me.

I liked Liz and immediately found her a very good communicator and someone who could clearly articulate and reflect on what she was going through. I also realized that given the nature of the story and the fact that her partner Susan had no desire to participate in the film, the project might fall apart leaving me without enough material. So I researched the stories of two other lesbian couples in England (Steph and Sharon and Donna C. and Donna W.) who had already been successful in going to court together to get the co-parent’s rights recognized. They did that by appealing to another serendipitous piece of legislation passed under the Thatcher government, the Children’s Act (1989). The Act was designed to protect children’s interests by ensuring that their main caretakers could take responsibility for dealing with schools, doctors etc. Unlike Liz, these other lesbian couples had secured these rights while they were still together rather than when a relationship had broken down.

At the time I first filmed her, Liz was going through a traumatic crisis in her life. As a filmmaker, I was in a very different situation interviewing someone about past experiences, although I had interviewed people about painful ones. I knew that when participants are in the midst of a life crisis, the filmmaker is even more likely to be placed in the role of counsellor-confidante.

I persuaded Charlie the executive producer and the commissioning editor Jacquie Lawrence that by filming these retrospective stories with the two other couples, we would have enough material even if Liz’s story did not develop in the way anticipated. Jacquie, the commissioning editor, asked for a detailed treatment showing how the different stories might be intercut, which I duly wrote. We obtained the development money and started filming Liz’s first legal attempt to get access. We did interviews with her about the story so far, filmed her meeting with her lawyer, before and after the first court appearance. And when the court granted access, we recorded her thoughts before and after her first reunion with her son.

And then Liz stopped answering my calls. And I had no ending for her story. As I suspected, the situation with her ex-partner had begun to change, so she was getting cold feet about the filming. Given my visual absence as interviewer from the film and my televisual use of the pseudo-monologue up to that point[10], I didn’t feel we could suddenly make some performative gesture where we explained the changed circumstances to the audience — I thought they would want to know from her what had happened.

So I finally managed to speak to Liz and persuaded her to give me a final interview, which she very graciously did. But the atmosphere was strained. I felt more intrusive than ever, and Liz, not surprisingly, was evasive and much more uncomfortable than before. Furthermore, as if by the hand of God, the monitor was not correctly calibrated and the interview footage was badly underexposed.

At that point, I wondered if the larger issue of the lack of recognition given to lesbian co-parents justified the thumbscrews I felt I had had to put on Liz to give this interview — the murky footage only seemed to confirm that I was wrong. It forcefully came home to me then that supposedly serious documentaries like this one had a lot in common with what they put their subjects through than any other piece of tabloid journalism.[11]

Worse was to follow. Just before the film was aired, the Daily Mail, one of the most rightwing newspapers in Britain identified Liz because we had included a shot of her lawyer’s offices and they tried to track her down. They failed to locate her but they did publish an article about her case, which lifted speech and images from her story from the film. We had created a reconstruction of Liz’s reunion with her son and used a small girl to play John — purely because she was the daughter of the production manager’s friend. (We could not film her actual son, for both ethical and legal reasons, since Susan had not agreed.)

The Daily Mail took a shot from this reconstruction and implied that the child we used was in fact her son suggesting that she (and I) had exposed him to public scrutiny. The article’s final section places Liz’s story in the context of “an official survey” that purports to find only one gay household for every 692 homes, thus interpreting her story within a homophobic discourse around the instability of gay relationships.[12] I wondered whether Liz felt like Malcolm’s description of the “victims” of journalists:

“Like the credulous widow who wakes up one day to find the charming young man and all her savings gone, so the consenting subject of a piece of non fiction learns — when the article or book appears — his hard lesson.”[13]

Despite all these events Liz did not at any point say she wished her contribution to be cut from the film or the program to be withdrawn, although it clearly her story was circulating in a way that caused her (and me) grief. She stood by her original “consent” even though the meanings created from the film were evidently not what she had “consented” to.

Consent, ethics and identity

In making Child of Mine, I was both an outsider” and an “insider.” I was a documentary maker producing work for a major channel as well as a member of the lesbian community I was documenting. In this outside/inside position, I faced different claims on my loyalties and varying obligations to my subject. First, I had contractual obligations to Channel Four in relation to the program commissioned, both in terms of the legal status of interviews and other footage and in terms of storyline. Second, I felt a commitment to Liz as a fellow lesbian whose struggles for equal treatment I was witnessing and whom I wished to present in the best possible light. Third, I had a commitment to my own filmmaking career.[14]

In legal terms, Liz had signed a standard release form at the outset of shooting which gave us full permission to use the material we shot of her and edit it how we chose. In the sweeping legal phraseology of this standard release for broadcast, she had given all consents necessary for the

“reproduction, exhibition, transmission, broadcast and exploitation thereof without time limit throughout the universe by all means and media (whether now known or hereafter invented) without liability or acknowledgement to [her].”

The release form allows the producers not to have to consult with contributors at the editing stage. This is as much for economic reasons as creative control. Editing schedules involving paid professional editors and facilities as well as deadlines for program delivery make it difficult negotiate with subjects through repeated viewings. By the time the editing starts, much money may also have been spent on acquiring more footage, so especially where professional crews and travel have been paid for, there is great economic pressures to retain absolute control over how footage is used.

The fact that people sign release forms is generally used by the program-makers as justification for using the person’s story, interviews or any other footage filmed in whatever way seems appropriate or necessary to construct the project and fulfill the producer’s aims. As Brian Winston comments,

“The consent defense applies whether or not the participants benefit and never have second thoughts about their role: whether or not they benefit a little but also suffer so that they come to regret co-operation: or whether or not they just suffer and rue the day their involvement started them on this disastrous path.”[15]

So by the “standards of the profession” I had no need to consult Liz about the cut of the program or my desire to use the footage about her, even when I suspected she was trying to re-open a dialogue with her ex-partner. Also, Charlie Stuart, executive producer, and I had a tacit agreement with her that she would allow us to follow her case to its conclusion and would not drop the case. But during the course of the production, she appeared no longer willing to take part after the initial period of shooting and she dropped her legal action. Given our initial understanding with her, we also felt justified on seeking a final interview from her. We wanted her to explain what had happened since she gained access to her son since she no longer seemed to be pursuing her case. Legally we could still use the material we had shot to date but our ethical position had become even more complicated. When we came to edit the film, communication with Liz over the project was still awkward.

We also became more concerned about two other consent issues that we feared would create obstacles to broadcast. One, we had not obtained a consent form from her lawyer, Margaret, to use the interviews and sequences involving her (a foolish omission — especially involving a lawyer). This omission would, we feared allow Margaret to block the film on her client’s behalf if Liz felt it now jeopardized her accord with her partner. Two, Susan had not given any consent to the filming of the legal case or her son. We took advice from Channels Four’s lawyer who seemed relaxed about the lack of a release form from the lawyer, despite the fact that the Channel, like most stations, usually required all consent forms to be submitted with the final program. He took the view that by allowing the camera to be present Margaret had given a de facto consent. With regard to the second point he advised that as long as Liz’s partner and their son were not identified, she would have no legal case against the channel. (All participants were given false names, including Liz). The issue remained that anyone who knew the couple would know who Susan was and that the film was clearly from Liz’s point of view, with Susan’s view of the situation clearly absent. I felt uncomfortable about this — did I not also have obligations to protect Susan, especially since she had never given any kind of consent for the details of her relationship to be aired?

I could quell some of the doubts I had by resorting to another common justification used in professional contexts. This is that any difficulties a person experiences as the result of their appearance in the film can be justified if the film serves a wider purpose of highlighting a social abuse.[16] This was the justification given for instance by Roger Graef, a major British practitioner of the “fly-on-the-wall” documentary in relation to his film A Complaint of Rape (part of the series “Police” BBC One, 1982). Here, he filmed the humiliating interrogation by police of a women with a history of psychiatric problems in; she has her back to the camera. When I asked Graef at a screening of the film whether he felt he should have intervened to protect the woman, he replied that that would have disrupted what he was trying to show — i.e., that police were trained to treat all [rape] allegations as dubious” and “to “test such claims rigorously at the earliest stage.”[17] Indeed since the film did influence changes in the treatment of rape victims, it seems hard to quibble with his motive.

Yet the ability to distance oneself from the events that one is filming may also depend on one’s relation to the subject being filmed. It may be easier, for instance, to remain in the position of the detached observer if one has not personally experienced sexual abuse. While I was following Liz’s story, I was also in a rather different position in relation to her and her than is usual for observational filmmakers. Liz had agreed to take part in the program because of our shared identity as lesbians and her confidence that because of this, I would make sure her story was not be trivialized or sensationalized. She had confidence that I, as director, had an understanding of what was at stake. I believed that also we shared the tenet of feminism that the “personal is political” — challenging the dominant ideology that the private and the public are separate spheres. That is, as feminists, we assume that the public and private sphere shape each other, as, for instance, in the continuing inequality in average pay between men and women (currently approximately 17% in the UK) legitimized by the assumption the “private” sphere is still women’s primary responsibility.

For both of us, Liz’s dilemma was indeed not merely a “private” one but arose from the structural social inequality faced by lesbians as parents and as citizens. As such, we did not see that filming her situation per se was an “invasion of privacy,” in dominant journalistic parlance, but a means of foregrounding how the “private” sphere of our intimate lives is molded by what is and is not socially sanctioned. Also unlike in classic observational films such as Wiseman’s, every individual scene that we filmed was with the agreement of the Liz and her lawyer and the times, dates and activities to be filmed were set in advance with them. Many sequences also involved Liz’s performing actions for camera (such as sorting out her son’s things) and my on-camera interaction with the people on camera through interviews which were planned and executed with Liz’s collaboration.

During the period of the production, however, this shared understanding came under threat as Liz’s situation evolved. She retreated from the filming as she tried to re-establish a relationship with her partner. I found myself stuck with an unfinished story. At this point my more “professional” motivations for making the film began to predominate. I wrote above that I thought that the audience would want to hear from Liz the conclusion of her story but in reality it was I who needed Liz to give me a story since I was commissioned to deliver one. This was the first long film I had a chance to get aired. To make it, I had written a treatment where the story had an ending; that story rather than the retrospective ones won us production funding. Emmanuel Berman and colleagues have written about how those filmed, the documentary protagonists, waver between fear of exploitation and need for exhibitionism.[18] In the process of documentary making, I would argue that not only the protagonists but also the director are torn between an exhibitionist need to be seen —putting their work in the public arena — and a fear of being exposed for making a film that doesn’t “work.”

In the written treatments often required by television channels —as some kind of security that they will get what they are paying for — the filmmakers tend to script people’s lives in advance of shooting those lives. But once I as a director write the likely story of a film in this way, the more I am obliged to make events fit the script so as to “deliver” what has been promised. (This tendency has of course been exacerbated in “reality television” where the game show formats and selection of “cast” are designed to produce conflicts amongst participants.) In these circumstances it is very difficult to achieve a collaborative approach of the kind Tom Waugh identifies in U.S. oppositional lesbian and gay films where, he suggests:

“The traditional notion of consent/surrender of the subject is replaced by strategies that heighten collaboration between filmmaker and subject, that maximise the subjects control over his/her image.”[19]

Instead a television director’s desire for structural and thematic coherence may clash with the subjects’ moral rights to have a say in how they are represented.

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