Mark Lawson writes in Saturday’s Guardian on the case of Georges Lopez, the school teacher featured in the excellent documentary Être et Avoir (here’s a review I wrote over the summer) who is reported to be suing the film’s producers for a share of the profits arising from its phenomenal and unprecedented success:
Because viewers of Etre et Avoir (sic) tend to view Lopez as an antidote to ambition and capitalism, this news seems depressing. But the teacher may be exploring an important – and influential – area of law. Someone who wrote a book about their life would need to be paid if their story became a basis for a film…
…[h]owever, documentary – in television and cinema – has traditionally used the public as fodder for either no reward or a token payment under euphemisms such as “disturbance fee”. The justification would be that documentarians are reporting rather than adapting someone’s life, and journalism should not be paid for.
But this justification doesn’t cut it when money comes into the picture. In the past, documentaries would have been much more equivalent to television journalism, at least insofar as theatrical releases were rare and publicity virtually non-existent. In contrast, Être et Avoir has proven to be a huge money-spinner at cinemas worldwide, no doubt fuelling future video sales, and the filmmakers alone are reaping the financial benefits.
Times change. Documentaries aren’t just about art or journalism anymore, nor are artistic or journalistic value the only motivation for making them — in an industry run by bean counters and driven increasingly by the need for rapid return on investment, they can’t be. (It hasn’t happened overnight, but it has been a recent phenomenon: films like Hoop Dreams and the work of Nick Broomfield spring to mind.)
So now that the goalposts have been moved, shouldn’t M Lopez (and the children in his class at that) be entitled to some share of the wealth generated by the film’s success? When I first read Lawson’s article I was going to argue that maybe Lopez was pushed into the lawsuit, possibly by friends or colleagues who felt he was being exploited for little recompense (after all, he’s the guy on the screen, not the production company). But thinking about it more, I’m sure that if I were in his shoes I wouldn’t need anyone to push me into it; I’d feel plenty aggrieved anyway.
Especially over the last decade, personal image rights have become more and more important. So, if the makers of Être et Avoir are profiting on the ‘trademarks’ of the unique personalities captured on film, is it not right that those same personalities should be awarded some share of the proceeds?
Here’s another question: does this case make Lopez a spoil-sport? One could argue either way. It certainly appears, in Lawson’s words, _”ironic that M Lopez, celebrated by lovers of the film as a representative of old-fashioned values, has become a prominent advocate of the new-fashioned ones”_ (of course, his lawyer might well have something to do with that). Yet on the other hand, the filmmakers could be seen as using artistic or journalistic value as a shroud for capitalist interests at the expense of their subjects.
It wouldn’t be right to set a precedent whatever way you look: either documentary subjects sign away their rights for nothing, or the making of future documentaries becomes prohibitively expensive. There must be a middle ground that would made everybody happy.
It’s certainly a shame to see a work so beautiful as Être et Avoir tainted like this by the stain of filthy lucre, but it’s a situation that needs to be addressed nonetheless.