Few films I saw in 2022 had a more lasting effect on me than Jennifer Tiexiera and Camilla Hall’s Subject. This documentary about documentaries explores how the lives of many individuals who “starred” in a hit documentary were impacted and forever changed as a result. The very idea of a hugely profitable doc film or non-fiction streaming series becoming part of the cultural zeitgeist was unimaginable when many of the projects examined in the film got started. We didn't even have streaming series back when most of these films were initiated. And theatrical doc features were aimed at a small niche of the arthouse audience.
That was certainly the case with the oldest movie profiled here, Hoop Dreams. Steve James’s 1994 documentary, which follows two African-American high school students in Chicago pursuing their dream of becoming professional basketball players, started out as a 30-minute short produced for PBS television and went on to become one of the most acclaimed documentary features of all time. The tiny production ended up making more than $11 million worldwide and caused a major upset when the doc branch of the Academy failed to nominate it for an Oscar. The newest project represented in Subject is the 2004 documentary miniseries The Staircase, which began life as a small French documentary and ballooned into multiple versions run in multiple countries. The Staircase, about the trial of novelist Michael Peterson who was convicted of murdering his wife, spawned high-profile follow-up episodes that were released on Netflix in 2018 (along with a repackaged rest of the series), inspired a mockumentary-style spoof sitcom, and is now becoming a fictionalized miniseries for HBOMax. The other subjects profiled in this movie appeared in the acclaimed documentary films Capturing the Friedmans, The Square, and The Wolfpack.
Tiexiera and Hall’s film starts where most documentaries end following up with the folks whose stories, personas, and images were at the heart of a particular movie—in this case, a highly successful movie. The picture interrogates non-fiction filmmaking morals and ethics during what is now considered to be the "golden age of documentaries." At the center of the film are questions about power dynamics, consent, who has the right to tell certain types of stories, how documentary subjects are used to promote, market, and otherwise sell the films they appear in, and whether subjects should be paid for their participation and/or have a direct say in how they're depicted in documentaries. Those last questions are the thorniest because once documentary subjects become producers with the ability to shape how their stories are presented, they all but cease to be true subjects. And once people start to get paid for participating in documentaries, the line between this journalistic art form and manipulated "reality television" entertainment quickly disappears.
But all that is not to say that the subjects of documentary films are not entitled to reap some kind of financial benefit if a project based solely or largely on their personal lives and likenesses ends up making a fortune for a filmmaker or (more likely) a film distributor or streaming company. To say nothing of what is owed to a subject for being asked to repeatedly relive what is often the most traumatic experience of their lives—first for the benefit of telling a story, and then in order to get that story seen and heard. This is all thought-provoking stuff, especially for those of us involved in producing, funding, or otherwise making documentary films. But it should also be of interest to those who consume documentaries as audience members, which—even before the COVID-19 lockdowns—was a rapidly growing section of the population. As a culture, we have an insatiable appetite for real-life tales of conflict, tragedy, heartbreak, embarrassment, and triumph.
Until recently, a person might have garnered 15 minutes of fame (or infamy) as a result of appearing in a documentary that attained some minor notoriety. Our current age of social media, 24-hour news cycles, docuseries, and true crime podcasts, enables subjects to become inadvertent celebrities, known to millions for what is often the worst chapter of their lives, or perhaps an inspirational chapter of their life long since past. The person that most embodies this conundrum in Subject is Margie Ratliff, one of Michael Peterson's daughters from The Staircase. When Netflix acquired the rights to the docuseries and produced follow-up episodes in which her father's case was reopened, images of younger Margie and her sister weeping in the courtroom as her father was convicted of murdering their mother were the centerpiece of Netflix's ad campaign. There were literally huge billboards and posters on buses with images of these then-teenaged girls experiencing the most horrific and painful moment of their lives. Netflix's "Did He Do It" tagline and campaign got a lot of eyeballs to the series. So much so that now Ratliff is dealing with, "so how did it feel when..." calls from the actress who will be paid handsomely to portray her in the upcoming HBOMax series. When she and her sister gave their consent to be part of the original film, they were saying yes to a tiny French film crew, and they were desperate to find any way to help clear their father's name. They hardly expected to be at the center of a non-fiction franchise worth tens of millions of dollars.
Ratliff is not the only person profiled in the film who felt exploited by either the filmmaker, the distribution company, or simply by the process of appearing in a documentary project. But others express the opposite sentiments. In more than one case, the fact that someone featured in this film agreed to be part of a documentary is the only reason they are no longer in prison, or it's how they met their spouse, or it enabled their political message to reach a far greater audience than would otherwise have been possible. Some just revelled in having an outlet for self-expression. And, over the course of production on Subject, some of the participants ended up feeling differently about their past experience than they did when they agreed to, once again, become the subject of another documentary.
Tiexiera and Hall limit the focus of their movie mostly to those who appeared on-screen in one of the profiled documentaries. The filmmakers behind these pictures, some quite notable, were not invited to participate. This deliberate choice might make the film seem one-sided, but part of the point is that the decisions as to how the stories were told in the movies for which these individuals are known were made without their input. So the case can easily be made that only hearing one side of the story in this small film (which still has no distributor) hardly counters the "side" that's long since been accepted as "the whole story". And many of these participants would not argue (as I certainly would not) that documentary subjects should have control over how their stories are told. There’s a significant gap between the extremes of making subjects into co-filmmakers, and leaving subjects out in the cold when the director and producer are finished with them.
The idea of paying subjects for participating in documentaries comes up here, but it doesn't take much imagination to see what a terrible idea that would be. If doc subjects have a monetary incentive, they may not want the filming to end. And there is a good chance subjects will say and do whatever it takes to keep filming, especially if they are financially strapped or if they are looking to parlay their participation into their own celebrity status. That is the essence of "reality television," where producers coax and reward their subjects into pre-established conflicts, dramas, and narratives, and the subjects happily play along. But there are many other ways to fairly compensate documentary participants that fall far short of paying them directly. Covering child care expenses when a subject is asked by a filmmaker to travel or take part in something outside of the normal scope of their lives, either during the shooting or the promotion. Including a line item in the budget for counselling or therapy (both for the subjects and often for the filmmakers) of documentaries that deal with traumatic issues. Involving subjects in the impact campaigns that often accompany the release of a documentary. And, in the ultra-rare occasions when a documentary becomes a massive financial success, sharing some of those profits with the subjects after the fact.
That was what happened in the case of Hoop Dreams. When director Steve James and cinematographer Peter Gilbert first approached the two boys at the center of that movie, William Gates and Arthur Agee, they explained to them, their parents, and everyone who appeared in the film that there was no money in documentaries. This was not a false statement. Prior to Hoop Dreams, I can't think of a single non-fiction picture that made over ten million dollars. But when it did, James and Gilbert went back to the families of those boys with a plan for how to share the film's financial success. They came up with the incredibly simple concept of paying the two main subjects of the film the same amount they as director and cinematographer had made, and they worked out a way to pay each person who spoke on camera in roughly the same way an actor in the Screen Actors Guild would be compensated for a similar screen appearance. None of this amounted to the kind of money the boys would be making if their dream of NBA stardom had come true. But part of the point of both the film Hoop Dreams and the story behind its release is that most of the time, success doesn't end up exactly how you dream it. And the few hundred thousand dollars the filmmakers and the protagonists of Hoop Dreams got from their involvement in that film, went a long way toward helping them become the successful individuals they all are now.
That specific story is not included in Subject, though we do see how Agee has turned his legacy as one of the stars of Hoop Dreams into a clothing line and other sound financial opportunities for himself. Similarly, the story of Margie Ratliff refusing to discuss her traumatic experiences for the umpteenth time with the actress cast to play her in the fictionalized version of The Staircase is not featured in this film, though Ratliff does speak of the re-exploitation and re-victimization she feels each time the docuseries is repackaged. When I saw this Subject, at the Camden International Film Festival, I knew there would be a Q&A with the filmmakers following the screening, but I was not expecting every one of the subjects profiled in the movie to come out on stage. What followed was one of the most potent post-screening discussions I'd ever witnessed, with many additional stories and perspectives shared.
But I was profoundly affected by Subject prior to that Q&A. The whole point of the movie is to start these types of conversations; not to provide a prescription for how to make the production of documentaries more just and equitable. This is not a didactic film pushing a pedagogical agenda, it's a film that provides little-seen perspectives and raises issues that have gone undiscussed for far too long, as the current boom in non-fiction content has escalated. Many viewers will come away from the film drawing different conclusions than I might. And I don't think my conclusions align with the filmmakers' in several instances. And some will resonate more with certain folks featured in the picture than others. Part of how you assess these subjects as heroic and brave, opportunistic and crafty, deeply sympathetic individuals, or exploitative cynics playing the victim card, will probably depend on your own life experiences and your awareness of the films referenced here. But, if nothing else, Subject, enables viewers to expand their understanding of the documentary process. And it should initiate a long, rich discussion among those who make documentaries and those who watch them about the moral and ethical issues involved in telling other people's stories.
Profoundly engaging documentary about documentaries explores the changing morals and ethics underlining non-fiction cinema, and how “starring” in a hit doc has impacted individuals profiled in fact-based phenomena.