I had the pleasure to participate in a round-table discussion last week entitled "True Lies: the interpretation of cultures through film" as part of the "ETNOFILm" festival in Rovinj, Croatia, organized by the Ethnographic Museum of Istria.
The first panelist, ethnologist Tanja Bukovćan, described three genres of ethnographic film; films made by anthropologists for a narrow academic public, travelogues, and TV documentaries. According to Bukovćan, each of these genres contains different ideals of 'truth' in their representations. The second panelist, filmmaker Danijela Majstorović, spoke of her efforts to get informants to speak openly about their lives in front of the camera, as well as the need to edit all of this material into a film that viewers would actually watch.
I myself said that the ideal of empirical 'truth' in ethnographic film has been gone from anthropology for several decades. Most anthropologists agree with Clifford Geertz - that there is no truth, there are only forms of presentation and interpretation. The anthropologist's (and filmmaker's) role is to create 'thick descriptions' of situations in order to allow the reader/viewer to see which understandings are self-evident and which are subject to negotiation and re-interpretation. I feel that the best ethnographic films are those that show informants engaged in such cultural negotiation. Several of the films presented at the 2009 ETNOFILm festival do just that.
If you understand Croatian, you can read more about the round-table in the newspaper 'Glas Istre'.