Documentaries are often crafted to explore the social issues of the world, either with an aim to simply bring these issues to light or in the hope of highlighting injustices in need of a fix. Some are made to inform and others, like any movie, to entertain. But what are the moral and ethical responsibilities of a documentary? What do their makers owe their real-life subjects? What does anyone? Such are the questions posited in Camilla Hall and Jennifer Tiexiera’s insightful documentary “Subject.”
to examine how they use their participants to craft a compelling narrative. But what does the word “compelling” mean when it involves real people and often the very real trauma of their lives? The directors attempt to answer this by following several prominent documentary participants, touching on their lives in the wake of becoming public figures through a documentary.
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Margie Ratliff, daughter of convicted murderer Michael Peterson and a subject of the true crime doc “The Staircase,” is the first to give audiences a glimpse into how a documentary changed her life. She tells us that it’s like opening up a wound. Initially, the Peterson family hoped that the docuseries made about her father’s criminal travails would help exonerate him, but Netflix’s eventual purchase of it (and then filming new episodes to boot), along with the release of the recent HBO Max limited series, only served one purpose: to ensure that the worst day of Ratliff’s life can never be forgotten.
When HBO Max announced that “Game of Thrones” star Sophie Turner was playing Ratliff in the new limited series, Ratliff explains that the show’s producers asked her if she’d speak to Turner. But as Ratliff candidly explains, even the question itself is unfathomable. Why compel a real person to recount their traumas for the benefits of an actor’s process?
Ratliff is one of the more prominent figures in the documentary, and everything she touches on is at the heart of what “Subject” is about. For one, there’s the constant need to document everything, even if a participant has to “act,” as Ratliff recounts breaking up with her boyfriend and being told by her father to wipe her tears and film an interview. That’s just one of the numerous issues the doc examines and that Hall and Tiexiera tastefully unpack.
©Fine Line Features/Courtesy Everett Collection
The authenticity of people like Ratliff is a continuing quandary that numerous interview subjects debate throughout the film. One thing it leads to is the question of paying documentary subjects for their time. Hall and Tiexiera interview several documentarians who state they don’t pay their participants, because it would alter how they present themselves (with Ratliff’s disclosure about hiding her feelings looming large). Other talking heads say that’s a fallacy to give directors an excuse not to pay people giving their time and emotional energy to help make a movie.
Arthur Agee, the star of Steve James’ groundbreaking doc “Hoop Dreams,” recalls the production company giving him a “life-changing” amount of money after the documentary became a commercial and critical darling. For the film’s executive producer, who is interviewed in the doc, it was the right thing to do. But even something like “Hoop Dreams” provides a road for the documentarians here to go down, specifically examining how white directors have been given the prime position of telling docs, even if they involve BIPOC subjects. It’s a fascinating, if brief, look into how directors of color often don’t make a return on their investment or, unless one is Ken Burns, white directors are in the position to get a doc greenlit.
It’s amazing the amount of content “Subject” packs into a tight 90-minute package. For all the in-depth discourse on the ethical problems of documentary there’s a fluidity and grace to how Hall and Tiexiera dissect everything. The footage of the documentaries they use blends seamlessly into the talking head portions to really critique how consent of the documentary participants is often left on the cutting room floor. There’s a blend of historical examination — looking at how docs like “Nanook of the North” glamorized exotic locales and presented docs as ways of seeing foreign cultures — as well as insightful social commentary that makes you wish this was a limited series really diving into numerous documentaries.
Hall and Tiexiera create something incredibly special with “Subject.” The subject matter (pun totally intended) yields a documentary that isn’t against the documentary world, but wants audiences to simply question what they’re watching. In a world where anyone can watch a video and expect its content to be true, the burden is on documentaries all the more to be honest and accurate. “Subject” is a great place to start for getting at the heart of why audiences’ love the truth of documentary, and what that truth really means.
“Subject” premiered at the 2022 Tribeca Film Festival. It is currently seeking U.S. distribution.
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