Top 10 Documentarians Who Were Sued By The Subjects of Their Films

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There exists an odd relationship between documentarian and subject, one that some say can border on the exploitative. While the project should ideally be mutually beneficial, the nature of the medium can make it feel quite a bit less so at times for one side or the other (or both).

In general, documentarians tend to serve their project above all else, including the subject’s precious feelings. And for this reason, these films don’t always turn out resembling what their subjects had in mind.

Here are ten cases where documentary filmmakers wound up in court, sitting across from the subjects of their films. Many of these lawsuits are, at the time of this writing, ongoing; some of them were successful, some not; some were justified, some borderline frivolous. But always, the story behind the legal tussle is almost as interesting (and in some cases, more so) than the documentary itself.

10. Lauren Greenfield, The Queen Of Versailles

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The Queen Of Versailles began as an account of Westgate Resorts timeshare baron David Siegel’s attempt to build the largest private residence in America (the “Versailles” of the title, a 90,000 square foot Florida dream home) for himself and his family; it ended up something else. Begun in 2007 before the economy took a turn for the worse, Siegel’s fortunes plummeted along with said economy, and the film morphed into more of a portrait of an obscenely rich family shooting themselves in the foot with their own arrogance and greed. The house, a $75 million monument to insane decadence, remains unfinished to this day.

Director Lauren Greenfield’s documentary about the Siegels was a gigantic hit at the 2012 Sundance festival and won several awards. However, the Siegels themselves were not terribly pleased with the “fall of the rich, arrogant bastards” direction the film ended up taking. They brought suit for defamation on the eve of the film’s Sundance debut, claiming the film was detrimental to Westgate Resorts’ business and reputation. Strangely, even though all the proper releases seemed to have been signed by David’s son Richard (who is instrumental in his company and figures prominently in the movie), David argued that his son was just one Vice President of many (sure) and worked not for Westgate Resorts, but the legally-separate Westgate Marketing (the resort’s telemarketing operation).

For some reason, the judge threw out this ridiculous argument, and though the lawsuit drags on as of this writing, it appears headed to arbitration and a rather unsatisfactory conclusion for the Siegels. And by the way, if you’re in the market for an unfinished $75 million palace, we happen to have an inside line on one.

9. Errol Morris, Tabloid

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Errol Morris’s 2010 film Tabloid has as its subject Joyce McKinney, who was at the center of what was known as the “Mormon Sex In Chains Case” (really) in the British tabloids of the 1970’s. McKinney, a former Miss Wyoming, had essentially been accused of kidnapping an acquaintance and attempting to rape him out of being Mormon. Morris’ documentary was based on interviews he conducted with her, as well as with journalists related to her case.

First, there were the standard claims that filmmaker and subject weren’t on the same page as to what type of project it would be; McKinney says she thought she was making a Showtime special about paparazzi, not a feature film about her old case. But then things got, well, incredibly weird. Among McKinney’s claims: an associate producer forged her signature on a release, the same producer coerced her into signing said release by stabbing her in the hand and threatening her dog, and that Morris slipped subliminal messages into his film to bias viewers against her.

Although this case similarly drags on as of this writing, the judge seems to inexplicably be siding with the Oscar-winning documentarian, and against the notoriously unreliable, borderline-insane Mormon shacklin’ lady who shows up to shout “Liar!” at screenings of the film, in pretty much every ruling thus far.

8. Nicolas Philibert, Être et Avoir

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Acclaimed French Documentarian Nicolas Philibert’s 2002 film Être et Avoir (To Be And To Have) is a portrait of a little known French tradition: many smaller communities are centered around tiny rural schools with only one teacher, from whom the local children learn for their entire school careers until graduation. An intriguing subject, and one that totally explains how Mr. Feeny could teach the entire Boy Meets World clan from kindergarten to college. You wouldn’t think it would inspire a lawsuit though, but here we are.

It seems that Georges Lopez, the teacher at the center of the film, figured he was due some of that sweet, sweet profit once the film went into release. His claims that he was misled about the nature of the project (see a theme developing here?) rang a little bit false; Lopez asserted that he was told it would be a small educational film, not a commercial venture, and that use of his image had not been authorized for such.

However, he kind of screwed himself by showing up at the Cannes premiere with several of his students, and repeatedly telling the press how happy he was that the film was successful. It has been suggested that Lopez had merely been bitten by the fame bug, and got greedy. The suit was thrown out in 2004.

7. Adam Bhala Lough, The Carter

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Lil’ Wayne’s 2008 album Tha Carter III is considered a classic by many, having achieved triple platinum sales and elevated Wayne to major-recording-artist status. Filmmaker Adam Bhala Lough spent the year prior to its release documenting the day-to-day activities of Lil’ Wayne in a fly-on-the-wall style, resulting in the acclaimed 2009 documentary The Carter. Well, acclaimed by most everyone except Lil’ Wayne.

Wayne has brought not one, but two lawsuits against director Lough and producer Quincy Jones III. One suit simply alleged that the documentary tarnished his image, with depictions of his frequent marijuana and cough syrup use (as if anyone was shocked by this,) and the other disputed the filmmakers’ right to use music from Tha Carter III. In a documentary about the making of the album.

Not only were both lawsuits thrown out, but Wayne was ordered to pay $2.2 million in damages, for holding up the film’s release and depriving the production house of profits. Looks like Wayne’s frivolous lawsuits turned out to be almost as bad an idea as his rock album (almost).

6. Nick Broomfield, Lily Tomlin

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Nick Broomfield’s 1986 feature Lily Tomlin was an examination of the development of the titular comedienne’s highly successful one-woman stage show, “The Search For Signs Of Intelligent Life In The Universe.” Broomfield’s problem here, was that he did his job a little too well.

Tomlin’s claim was that Broomfield’s doc gave away too much of her material, and it would discourage paying customers from seeing the actual show. Also, she was being offered ridiculous amounts of money for a book and movie deal of her own, and she thought (probably correctly) that Broomfield’s film would hurt her profits.

She was able to temporarily block the film’s release, but a judge lifted the order long enough for it to get screenings at some film festivals. The ensuing lawsuit was eventually settled, with Broomfield’s work never getting a commercial release, though some of the footage did eventually find its way into the video release of Tomlin’s one-woman show.

5. Joe Berlinger, Crude

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Joe Berlinger’s 2009 documentary Crude spent a few years following the development of a class action lawsuit filed in Ecuador against oil giant Chevron, whose drilling practices allegedly are causing irreparable damage to portions of the Amazon River.

The film doesn’t really play favorites, giving equal time to the plaintiffs (30,000 Ecuadorians who claim their ancestral homeland is being defiled), representatives of Chevron, and various media outlets and celebrity activists involved with the case. However, we’re going to go out on a limb and say that perhaps portraying potentially unscrupulous behavior by an oil giant, one with incredibly deep pockets, may be kind of asking for a prolonged legal headache.

While Berlinger may be sympathetic to the locals, he insists he’s “not smart enough” to take a side in the case from a legal standpoint. Be that as it may, Chevron sued for the filmmakers to turn over around 600 hours of footage that they say is critical to the ongoing class-action lawsuit – and a judge agreed. The whole issue is ongoing, as Chevron lost the actual lawsuit in 2011; it is under appeal, as is the ruling against Berlinger.

4. Bill Haney, The Price Of Sugar

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This 2007 documentary explores the plight of sugar plantation workers in the Dominican Republic, and specifically those owned by the Vicini family, the Dominican-Italian family that owns the plantations. While the preceding sentence probably screams “potential lawsuit”, the facts of the case get strange … and ironic.

See, filmmaker Bill Haney was told by his attorney (AFTER producing the film) that a third party report verifying the accuracy of the script would be needed in order to obtain “Errors and Omissions Insurance” – essentially insurance covering potential screwups by the filmmakers. When the Vicinis sued for defamation, claiming that the filmmakers were acting with malicious intent to besmirch their reputations as “public figures,” the claim was initially thrown out, since this is near impossible to prove.

However, the third-party report that the filmmakers had commissioned, in order to obtain the proper insurance, was found by at least one judge to be possible evidence of malice. In other words, in trying to cover their asses to the greatest degree possible, and because they were extremely diligent in their fact-checking, the suit against the filmmakers was revived, and looks likely to drag on for some time.

3. Marshall Tyler, Paper Dreams

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The 2009 hijacking of the Maersk Alabama, a container vessel, was the first successful pirate seizure of a U.S. based ship since the 1800’s. In a strange twist of fate, a film crew headed by former Fugees rapper Pras Michel was either tangentially or directly involved in the incident, with Pras himself claiming to have been held captive by Somali pirates.

Apparently, Pras put up somewhere in the neighborhood of $70,000 to bring the crew, along with director Marshall Tyler, to the East African coast to shoot documentary footage. He claims that, once they returned home, Tyler refused to give up the footage, basically (ahem) hijacking the finished product.

This case is in limbo, which probably is best for Pras; the language in his claim specifically states that he and his crew were actually taken prisoner by pirates, a claim that has been proven false by multiple official accounts of the incident. It seems that, at the very most, all the film crew did was stand back and watch the vessel’s capture. The lawsuit is likely baseless anyway, as the film’s copyright lies with its creator, not Pras, who is only an investor, meaning Tyler can pretty much do as he pleases with the footage.

2. Fredrik Gertten, Bananas!

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Bananas! was a Swedish documentary investigating the lawsuit brought against fruit conglomerate Dole, by Nicaraguan plantation workers who claimed that exposure to DBCP, a pesticide, had made them sterile. After the film was well-received at the L.A. International Film Festival, Dole brought suit, claiming the film contained “patent falsehoods,” which is par for the course. However, Dole also pretty much threatened to sue everyone involved: the L.A. Film Festival, its sponsors, the filmmakers, and presumably the filmmakers’ dogs and cats.

This case is unique in that the film production house unhesitatingly counter-sued, and won. After a short and brutal court fight, Dole was ordered to quit blocking the film’s release, and to pay the filmmakers $200,000 in legal costs and lost profits.

Amusingly, director Fredrik Gertten’s next project was Big Boys Gone Bananas, a documentary about Dole’s efforts to sue him and the production house. Dole did not attempt to block its release, and we can’t imagine why; aside from the relatively-small financial hit they had taken, their defamation suit over Bananas! likely brought the film much more attention than it would have received had they simply done nothing.

1. CBS, The Uncounted Enemy: A Vietnam Deception

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On January 23rd, 1983, CBS aired The Uncounted Enemy: A Vietnam Deception featuring infamously hardass 60 Minutes correspondent Mike Wallace. The lawsuit which followed, brought by retired US Army Chief Of Staff General William Westmoreland against CBS and Wallace, famously established the criteria on which all future suits of its type would be judged: that a “public figure” like Westmoreland must prove that the documentarian made statements with “actual malice,” or that the defendant was knowingly misrepresenting facts in order to damage the reputation of the plaintiff.

At issue was the question of whether Westmoreland sort of accidentally on purpose underestimated the number of enemy troops in Vietnam, in order to create the illusion of progress in a conflict where none had been made. Among other claims, Westmoreland asserted that statements were taken out of context, and officers’ interviews concerning him were presented misleadingly and edited selectively. Said officers, when called at trial, contradicted this claim, confirming that their statements were portrayed accurately by CBS. This is pretty indicative of how the trial in general was going for Westmoreland when the case went to jury in 1985 (that is, not well).

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Unfortunately, Westmoreland chose to give up his suit before the jury could return with a verdict that may have set a landmark precedent. Instead, the suit was settled out of court while reinforcing the “public figure” and “absence of malice” notions that defamation suits still abide by. Westmoreland kept his rank and decorations, and probably inspired Mike Wallace to be even MORE of a hardass in the future.


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4 Comments

  1. One of my favorite documentaries of all time was Dig! The story of the Brian Jonestown Massacre and their friends/rivals the Dandy Warhols. I know the lead singer of BJM was unhappy with Dig! and wouldn’t promote it, but didn’t he end up suing the producers years later? (I can’t remember)

  2. David Verney on

    It’s interesting reading.

    I know this has nothing to do with the subject of this post, but maybe you could give us something on ghosts, UFO’s or any other supernatural happenings or even mythological legends.

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