Filming Transition: Do ethical storytelling rules apply to the Taliban?

This is the second half of our interview with Jordan Bryon and Monica Villamizar, the co-directors of the newly released film Transition (read about their creative process in part one.) Bryon is an Australian filmmaker who lived in Afghanistan for several years and documented the process of becoming a man while embedding with a group of Taliban insurgents. In this final installment of our series, Bryon and Villamizar discuss the ethical dilemmas they faced when making their movie.

Jordan Bryon jokes during our interview that filmmakers are more fun because facts don’t get in the way of their stories. It’s a quip that has a bit of a point — his peers do not have a formal code of ethics in the way that journalists do.

But while Bryon is willing to make a dad joke about it, he doesn’t take the topic lightly.

At the end of Transition, during a conversation in Australia with his mother, Barbara, Bryon expresses doubts about his film; a documentary about his gender transition that occurs while he’s also embedding with an unsuspecting group of Taliban fighters — men vehemently and violently opposed to LGBTQIA+ rights.

Courtesy AGC Studios/AGC Unwritten

“Can I ask your advice on something,” he says to his mother with a look of consternation on his face. “I don’t think I had any obligation to tell [the Taliban] and in fact I couldn’t tell them — it wouldn’t have been safe. But it’s one thing to not tell them I’m trans and it’s another thing to then make a film about it and kind of betray them so publicly.”

The scene is clearly included for the benefit of the audience, which might be questioning whether the movie has an ethical dilemma that goes beyond gender identity; and pertains to whether the Afghan fighters on camera should know that they’re part of a movie they’d likely oppose.

Bryon’s mother admits that there is an element of betrayal, but reassures her son that he’s done the right thing. “That’s the nature of a documentary,” she says, “to get to the truth, to get to the underground, to burrow in.” A few moments later she rightly adds, “there wouldn’t be a film if you told them.”

Unlike journalists, filmmakers are more inclined off-camera to show empathy toward their subjects to earn a level of trust. They’re also likely to seamlessly stitch interviews together for the sake of the narrative’s fluidity; it’s not as important to identify names, dates, and locations. And many filmmakers, including Bryon, believe that all of this can be done while maintaining a high level of professional integrity.

That’s not to say there’s isn’t a long, ongoing debate amongst filmmakers, academics, and their subjects about whether a code of ethics should exist. Filmmaking takes on many forms, and that’s apparent in Transition as we see Bryon simultaneously shooting a movie about himself, while on assignment to produce a feature for The New York Times.

What’s also pertinent to any ethical concerns about violating the religious, legal, or cultural sensibilities of this particular group of Afghans who appear in Transition is that they’re not civilians. “I think you can talk about the Taliban as representatives of the state who are in positions of power,” says Harjant Gill, a professor of anthropology at Towson University, who’s had a long career of making films that focus on LGBTQIA+ issues. “So you can sort of circumvent the question of ethics in that way,” he says, “because these are men in positions of power and you know they’ll be fine.” Gill says the bigger ethical consideration is whether offending the Taliban fighters outweighs the message Bryon is trying to communicate to the audience.

Spoiler alert: Gill errs on the side of the movie.

In the case of Transition, the message isn’t just about Bryon’s struggle with his gender identity as he cautiously embeds with the Taliban. The movie also serves to highlight how members of Afghanistan’s LGBTQIA+ community face an increasingly grave threat under their rulers’ interpretation of Islamic law. It’s a danger we the audience can sort of feel every time we see Bryon in the same room with his Taliban hosts.

Do you think any of the Taliban fighters you hung out with will face consequences for being associated with your movie? And I’ll just ask the $25,000 question now, should they have been given a heads up?

Jordan Bryon: So, okay, there are three things. One, it’s nobody’s business if you’re trans, right? Two, it wouldn’t have been safe for Teddy (the Afghan journalist who assists Bryon and appears throughout Transition). Three, it’s also better for them that they don’t know. Because, according to Sharia law, when you’re ignorant to something, you don’t have to suffer the punishment. But, you know, I think one of the strongest points of transition is we’re asking this ethical question: is it okay to be a guest in somebody’s house and village and personal life, representing something that they are fundamentally against? I think that’s an interesting ethical question. I answered it for myself, by making the film. I think the film does more good and offers more valuable conversations to the world than it does damage to the individuals in the film. And there were times where I was feeling really ethically compromised, and I wanted to stop making the film.

I noticed there’s a note in the credits that mentions many names were left off for security reasons. Was that a measure taken just to protect your staff, or were you also considering the Taliban’s safety as well?

Bryon: Sure, nobody cares if you disrespect the Taliban. But the values and respect that I give to people I like in my films, I also want to give it to people that I don’t like — and that’s a personal ethical guideline that I follow. It’s not the kind of rule that’s written down somewhere but it’s a key issue of integrity for me and my profession.

Villamizar: Can I add to that, too, please? I think, look, the documentary field doesn’t have a code of ethics. And that’s something that my fellow filmmakers have told me is a problem. But journalism does have a code of ethics. And I think because there were so many journalists involved; I’m a journalist, you know, Jordan was being a de facto journalist because he was reporting not only for The New York Times but the BBC, Channel 4, etc. I think we did bring that code of ethics of journalism, into this process, into the edit, we were constantly discussing these things, and is very important for us. When we were in doubt, we incorporated our dilemmas into the cut. You know, let’s have these discussions with Jordan asking himself or asking his mom about the ethics of the film. Let’s be transparent.

Courtesy AGC Studios/AGC Unwritten

Well, Jordan, if filmmakers don’t have a codified set of storytelling ethics to refer to; how do you make — and no pun intended — the transition from being a filmmaker to someone reporting for The New York Times and the BBC?

Bryon: Obviously, while there is no formal code of ethics in filmmaking, good filmmakers are ethical. We might not spell out dates and locations for every scene, but we’re representing the characters in honest and true ways, and not manipulating the story. And when I’m working for The New York Times, I adhere to their ethical policies, not to mention that everything I do for The New York Times goes through really rigorous fact-checking.

Let me see if I understand this correctly. When you’re filming for The New York Times, you make sure to identify the people, locations and dates of what is being shown on screen; whereas when you’re making a movie, like Transition, what we the audience are seeing is embellished so that we’re always kept in the moment?

Bryon: Yeah, I think so. Filmmaking is more of an art form than journalism — it can be more fluid. Timelines get adjusted, the sequencing of events is adjusted. I mean, obviously, it’s not going to be adjusted in a way that changes the meaning of [a scene]. And while I do have a point of view, and I express my point of view in my films, the integrity of the filmmaker is absolutely key. Because it’s also part of my job not to manipulate a scene or a person’s words in the edit. So that’s where I know I have a really strong ethical grounding for making sure that I’m representing the characters in the film in the way that is truest to them.

And that’s not the case when you’re reporting for a news outlet?

Bryon: Absolutely, you totally take a step back, you’re much more of a witness rather than a participant, and there’s more objectivity that’s required when you’re making journalistic pieces. Whereas if I’m making an independent feature film, as the director, I’m participating more — not like by being on camera or in the film, but I’m more free to get up close and personal with the characters. And I think I’ve been much more free to really build intimate relationships with the characters.

Courtesy AGC Studios/AGC Unwritten

It does seem that regardless of what role you’re playing — filmmaker or journalist — your stories are intended to be in the public interest.

Bryon: Yes. And right from the absolute very beginning, the key motivation for why I started filming [myself] was because I knew that my story one way or another was unique, and that it was going to be a way to show the world the Afghanistan that I fucking love, an Afghanistan that is inclusive and open, and surprisingly tolerant in many ways. And even after the Taliban took over, I was still determined to do that, I was still determined to show the surprising, beautiful, confusing, profound version of Afghanistan that I’ve experienced–

An Afghanistan that because of the movie you made, you and your colleague, Teddy, can no longer go back to?

Bryon: That’s true in my case but —

Villamizar: This is important. Teddy, had to leave the country [and move to Germany], not because of the film, but because his country collapsed. So we were making a [provocative] film. But the country for so many Afghans is completely untenable, including for Teddy, to be there. So it’s very bitter. But it’s not the film. It’s the political situation.

But the fact remains that Teddy and Jordan fear that they can’t go back to a place they both called home for so many years.

Bryon: I wouldn’t call it fear. I would call it a profound sadness. But I also don’t see it as a forever thing. I think eventually the Taliban will fall and it’ll go back. God knows to what next. But I don’t think it’ll be forever, it will just be for the foreseeable future.

Courtesy AGC Studios/AGC Unwritten

Transition is available on multiple platforms including YouTubeApple TV+, iTunes, and Amazon. A series of interviews were conducted with Jordan Bryon and Monica Villamizar that have been edited together for conciseness and clarity.

Tags: Afghanistan, Conflict Reporting, Documentary Filmmaking, ethical storytelling, LGBTQAI+, The Taliban, Transgender Rights

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