Characters, subjects, participants, or just people?

With our Interdoc programme we have been running some clandestine whisky tasting soirees at different festivals wherever we are running sessions.  A special guest list is invited but only get to know the time and the place via a text at the last minute. Such evenings are good fun and great way of networking.

Of course we also get a few gate crashers and this time, one of them was a woman who stepped straight out of a Vogue magazine, and when I enquired who she was, she replied “but I am Melissa, the star of Melissa’s film”.

Funny enough the following day, American filmmaker David Wilson (True/False Film Festival), was questioning at the Soap Box event what should be the best or correct way to refer to our documentary subjects?

Characters? Participants? Actors? People?

Any of those words are ok within the context of a proposal or a pitch, but of course none of them are adequate when we are introducing them to an audience. For the time being, the problem will remain unsolved, but then it is only lately that we are using our 'characters' as a marketing tool and inviting them to premieres and festivals.

This is not just a semantic debate – it raises more problematic questions linked to the filmmaker’s relationship to our characters... do we pay them? How responsible are we for their lives? Do we interfere?

We all have different ways to cope with it, but no one solution.

In fact, the world of documentary lost Sergey Dvortsevoy for exactly that reason, to the the clean-cut world of drama, with paid actors and red carpets.