When I first turned on the Netflix mockumentary, American Vandal, I was expecting it to just be ridiculous. This spoof of docu-series like Making a Murderer and Serial, follows the story of Dillon Maxwell, a student who is expelled from high school for spray painting images of penises onto teachers’ cars, even though there is no hard evidence against him. Even when I saw the trailer on Facebook, I just thought it would just be a joke. But, what I found in this series was not only a spoof, but also a series that hits on the ethical questions documentary filmmakers face all the time.

Graphic for American Vandal

American Vandal

While this story surrounds the case of Dillon Maxwell, we find that the real main character of this story is the show’s fictional narrator, “filmmaker” Peter Maldonado, a fellow high school student. Peter is a kid who isn’t really seen at school as anyone special, but he loves making films. So, when the opportunity comes for Peter to make a film that’s actually interesting, he takes it. As a result, the docu-series American Vandal is born. So, this story ends up being Peter’s baby. He cares about finding the truth at first, but as the series goes on and it starts to go viral, Peter finds himself at a crossroads: does he continue searching for the truth in order to bring justice to this situation, or does is he just trying to make a successful film?

This crisis in Peter’s brain is what ends up getting him in a lot of trouble as the series goes on. Peter starts to follow storylines that end up being irrelevant to the story as a whole, but also really hurt and embarrass the people around him. We even see Peter wrestle with the fact that he had gotten too close to his subject and, as he says: “had developed some biases of [his] own.”

So, what do we learn from this fictional filmmaking as real documentary filmmakers? At what point do we focus too much on making something that is successful or just good? Something with which all documentary filmmakers struggle is the question of how far we go when making a film. We have to realize that in making that film, there are things that we do that cause harm to other people and there are things that are good. So, the question ends up being–like it is for Peter—where is that line?

Picture of Tyler Alvarez as Peter Maldonado

Tyler Alvarez as Peter Maldonado

Over the course of the film, we find that Peter’s efforts may have, at first, helped prove Dillon Maxwell innocenct. But the film inadvertently hurts his Dillon by revealing his crush. The filmmaking also hurts a girl by revealing all the guys she has hooked up with. It hurts Dillon’s girlfriend by revealing a dark family history, as well as her cheating on Dillon. Peter’s film has brought to light the fact that Dillon is seen by the school as dumb and stupid and worthless. So Dillon actually ends up in a worse place by the end of the docu-series than he was at the beginning—all because of this film that another kid made.

So, what’s the lesson here? What’s the lesson from a humorous spoof about a kid spray painting dicks on a car? The lesson that documentary filmmakers should take away from this is that being conscious of the harm being done by the process of filmmaking needs to be taken into consideration. There is always an argument for the harm and good done by creating a film. But, there is a gray line that can be crossed. This is different for every film, but it is there, and filmmakers must be aware of the implications of filmmaking as a whole.

About Matt Swing