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Much like the Golden Age of Television, the Golden Age of Documentary has wrought unforeseeable consequences. We’ve seen the complications of the former in the SAG-AFTRA and WGA strikes, with shrinking writers' rooms and the unequal residual pie of an ever-expanding content universe. The latter is just beginning to emerge. The glut of shabby true crime stories, hagiographic celebrity documentaries that uncover nothing, and films hastily produced to record pressing contemporary world events are the casualties of a storytelling medium redeployed to feed the craven appetite of streamers and the awards ecosystem.
Stuck in the middle of this are the subjects of these documentaries, ordinary people caught in extraordinary events who are thrust into the spotlight without any knowledge of potential consequences. The filmmaker's responsibility to their subject is interrogated by the compact documentary, “Subject.”
Directed by Camilla Hall and Jennifer Tiexiera, "Subject" is an interrogation into the big hits of the non-fiction world, including “Hoop Dreams” to “Minding the Gap.” In this compendium of interviews with former subjects of major documentaries, you get a sense of the pitfalls and traumas these people faced once the lights dimmed. "Subject" includes harrowing stories while leading voices in the documentary sphere offer their insights. It’s not a film out for blood, which becomes a blessing and a curse for its filmmakers.
“Subject” begins by interviewing Margie Ratliff. Her father, Michael Peterson—the novelist at the time accused of murdering his wife—was the primary focus of the French true-crime docuseries “The Staircase.” She was a teenager then, interviewed to offer testimonials on behalf of her dad. But how much agency did she have? In the present, Ratliff thinks back on the mixed emotions she felt while employed as a defense for her father. Though Hall and Tiexiera were able to interview Peterson, there is neither any indication of remorse on his part nor a sense that he was grilled on the topic.
Other subjects who share their experiences include Ahmed Hassan of Jehane Noujaim’s Oscar-nominated film “The Square,” David Friedman of Andrew Jarecki’s Oscar-nominated film “Capturing the Friedmans,” Mukunda Angulo of Crystal Moselle’s Sundance Grand Jury prize winner “The Wolfpack,” and Arthur Agee of Steve James' Oscar-nominated “Hoop Dreams.” Of course, these films are bound by their prestige—the primary reason a director might cut corners—but they each represent a contour on the issues plaguing the art form.
Through “The Square,” Hall and Tiexiera critique the political repercussions their collaborators can face. With “Capturing the Friedmans,” they examine what long-term effects can occur, like how Friedman is forever tied to that film's grim subject. Hall and Tiexiera question the benefits of capturing a young person living through their trauma with “The Wolfpack.” Though a clip of Moselle and Angulo—in a film that regularly shies away from interviewing the directors of the documentaries themselves with their subjects—feels like a cheat.
“Hoop Dreams” becomes a fascinating test case on two levels. James approached Agee when he was just a child to observe his life. But what was the power dynamic between the subject and the filmmaker? Was Agee in a position to agree? A present-day Agee defends his involvement, particularly the financial windfall the film offered. When “Hoop Dreams” became a hit, James offered payment and residuals to the participants. That decision caused the topic of compensation for subjects to arise. The interviewed filmmakers—from Sam Pollard to Joe Brewster and Michèle Stephenson—are split on the issue.
It’s fascinating in "Subject" to see directors like Kirsten Johnson and Bing Liu discuss their ethos and ethics. Especially Liu, who shares how “Minding the Gap” may have permanently altered his relationship with his mother.
“Subject” winds through these concerns toward the contemporary documentary landscape. Non-fiction films weren't always big business—in the past, you’d be lucky to break even—but with the wave of works like “Bowling for Columbine,” “An Inconvenient Truth,” and “March of the Penguins” it’s become more of a factory for streamers. While you wish Hall and Tiexiera got more into the nuts and bolts of why modern documentary filmmakers are on an even steeper slippery ethical slope, they raise enough of an alarm for casual viewers to get the message.
Now playing in theaters.
Margie Ratliff as Self
Valerie Complex as Self
Davis Guggenheim as Self
Caroline Libresco as Self
Daresha Kyi as Self
Jesse Friedman as Self
Arthur Agee as Self
Evgeny Afineevsky as Self
Assia Boundaoui as Self
Kirsten Johnson as Self
Sam Pollard as Self
Thom Powers as Self
Sonya Childress as Self