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'The Kids Grow Up' turns the lens on home videos and the right to privacy

By Ann Hornaday
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, March 10, 2011; 10:58 PM

Early in "The Kids Grow Up," Doug Block's captivating documentary about his teenage daughter's final year at home before leaving for college, he describes his rising feelings of anxiety as her departure became a concrete reality. While images of Lucy Block growing up play lyrically across the screen, it becomes clear that she's a child whose rapport with the camera is as intimate and easy as with a family member.

As Block explains, not only was his daughter born "at the dawn of the consumer camcorder," but throughout her years growing up, she suffered "the double misfortune of having a documentary filmmaker for a father."

As "The Kids Grow Up" toggles gracefully between images of Lucy as an enchanting toddler and those of an equally beguiling, self-possessed young woman, the film indelibly captures the fishbowl life of a generation that came of age in front of cameras - mostly wielded by fathers - that served as devices for both neurotic attachment and emotional distance. "The Kids Grow Up" is about many things - intimacy, mortality, baby boomers who behaved more like buddies to their kids than parents - but its most potent encounters occur when Lucy chafes at being filmed by her father, who during her final year at home, seems increasingly obsessed with preserving every moment for posterity. ("Just think," Block's wife, Marjorie, observes mordantly, "when she works through all this in therapy, she can bring the footage with her!")

In "The Kids Grow Up," Lucy emerges as a subject who's clearly at ease and eagerly candid in front of the camera, but also fiercely defending the private life that her father finds so confounding. (The dynamics take on an even higher emotional charge when Lucy's French boyfriend arrives for an extended visit.) On prom day, Lucy complains that she's "tired of being filmed." Later, Block's omnipresent camera brings the situation to an emotional head. "I'm really [angry] that you're doing this at all," she says tearfully. "I hate it."

Although "The Kids Grow Up" leads viewers to think that Block did nothing but film Lucy for every minute of her young, hyper-observed life, he estimates that he filmed her for an average of about three hours a year. What's more, the two had clear ground rules that he would stop filming the moment she asked, which she doesn't do in that scene. (He did stop filming Lucy a few days later, then resumed when she asked him to start again.)

Still, the episode resonates as a particularly poignant example of a unique family dynamic, born of the video-camera revolution and magnified by the onset of YouTube and Facebook, wherein parents are increasingly relating to their children as subjects. Whether it's the casual upload of a particularly funny picture or sharing a hilarious video with family and friends, every instance of multimedia-sharing has the potential to become a mass-market blockbuster, as anyone who has giggled at - and linked to - "David After Dentist" or "Laughing Baby Ripping Paper" can attest.

Framing the ethics

Some of us aren't laughing. Indeed, plenty of people see these otherwise harmless home movies as ethically fraught - as potential sources of mild embarrassment for the subjects when they grow up or, worse, as outright exploitation. (David DeVore, who filmed his son David just after that famous dentist appointment, has come into particular criticism for monetizing the surprise YouTube hit by creating a Web site and merchandise line.)

Comment boards, flaming e-mails and tsk-tsking op-eds abound offering opinions on the emotional, psychological, legal and financial implications of parents blithely posting videos and photographs of their kids for everyone to see, everywhere and into perpetuity. But films such as "The Kids Grow Up" offer a more useful way to frame the debate, not in terms of parents and children but of filmmakers and subjects.

Ever since Robert Flaherty staged scenes with Inuit hunters for his germinal 1922 documentary, "Nanook of the North," documentary filmmakers have wrestled with their moral relationships with their subjects. What constitutes informed consent, and what level of it can be obtained from a subject before filming? What do they owe their subjects in terms of privacy, disclosure, simple vanity? How best to resolve the inevitable tension between what makes a good story (or viral YouTube video, or catchy Facebook update) and the trust of subjects who have literally signed their lives into your hands, to manipulate and distort at your will?

Pat Aufderheide, director of the Center for Social Media at American University, points to the study "Honest Truths," in which the center interviewed filmmakers on their most daunting ethical challenges, most of which are addressed on an ad hoc basis during filming. The filmmakers "didn't have a universal shared opinion," Aufderheide says, "but what they did generally believe is that, as you develop that relationship with your subject, you did incur an obligation to protect them from themselves, in some way." That obligation, particularly in the far-ranging, permanent world of digital media, "is something that the filmmaker really needs to think about, whether it's a parent or a professional," Aufderheide says. "Because their subjects often won't."

For Block's part, although he long suspected Lucy would make a good subject for a film, he waited before he began the project in earnest. "I did nothing but think about the ethics of this for years," says Block, who adds that he waited until Lucy was 18 to show her assembled footage from the film; upon her approval, he proceeded with the editing. "I even told her, 'If you don't want this made . . . if you think this is going to negatively impact your life, I will shelve it right now, no question. My rule was that I had to be a father first and a filmmaker second."

'Uncharted territory'

Is the entertainment value of a kid sobering up after anesthesia or a baby burbling at random pieces of paper worth the costs of objectifying them for public consumption, however diverting, enlightening or cathartic? Longtime parenting bloggers may provide useful connective tissue between the professional and amateur worlds, having wrestled with how much to share about their children while engaging in the kind of intimate disclosure that has made them successful.

Catherine Connors of HerBadMother.com says she limits what she writes about her children, 3 and 5, to "stories [that] are driven by love and affection. There's nothing mean-spirited or critical or negative in the stories." And she does post their photographs. "Pictures are part of my medium," she explains. "And there are some stories, thoughts, ideas and expressions of my experience that I would not be able to get across as effectively if I didn't use pictures."

At issue is "the greater artistic good, as profoundly cheesy as that sounds," Connors says. Ultimately, she admits that she "is sacrificing something - although I'd have to give some thought to what that is - on the altar of the fact that I'm serving the public good by being as open and revealing as I can be, simply because we as mothers have never had the opportunity to do it before."

Heather B. Armstrong of Dooce.com says that in the course of writing candidly about her struggles with parenting, especially postpartum depression, she has written about and shown pictures of her children, ages 7 years and 21 months. But she adds that in the past two years, she's "cut back about 90 percent" of what she's writing about her older daughter. She also gets her daughter's permission before she posts a photograph. "It's pretty much uncharted territory right now," Armstrong says. "I just hope that one day she understands that there's a group of women out there who were enabled by this technology to rebuild a village that we lost. And I hope she and other children are proud of us for trying to help each other."

Whether you agree with their answers or not, at least Connors and Armstrong are asking the right questions - the same questions about ethics, privacy and consent that Block and his documentarian colleagues confront every day. They're the very questions more parents will need to ask themselves as their funny, sweet, goofy home videos enter the viral Googleplex and potentially become mass entertainment. Whether it's Lucy Growing Up or David After Dentist or tomorrow's pint-size YouTube star, millions of children now have the misfortune of having documentary filmmakers for parents.

The Kids Grow Up rrr (90 minutes, at the Avalon) is unrated. It contains nothing objectionable.

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