The new documentary Subject opens by emphasizing the explosion that nonfiction cinema has experienced in recent years, demonstrated by the success of films and TV shows ranging from Tiger King (2020) to Free Solo (2018) to RBG (2018). Such attention has introduced a larger audience than ever before to questions of documentary ethics. Look no further than the controversy over the undisclosed use of deepfaked audio in the 2021 Anthony Bourdain bio-doc Roadrunner. Subject asks viewers to consider a different, much older issue in the field: how documentaries treat their lead characters.
The doc features several subjects from popular films, all of whom have a different perspective on how being filmed impacted their lives, as well as on the films themselves and what they’ve been through since the cameras went away. Ahmed Hassan was one of the protestors in 2013’s The Square, about the Egyptian Revolution of 2011. This put a target for government repression on his back, and he’s since had to flee Egypt for Turkey, but he’s heartened that the movie has inspired other movements. Michael Peterson was the lead of The Staircase (2004), a true crime miniseries (predating that genre’s current crest in popularity) about his court trial for the murder of his wife. Peterson is lighthearted about the experience, or at least seems to be, while his daughter Margie Ratliff views both the trial and filming as an ordeal, and she describes everything to do with the promotion of a fictionalized MAX miniseries adaptation of the documentary as retraumatizing.
The oldest film here is the landmark 1994 high school basketball drama Hoop Dreams, which is recalled positively by co-lead Arthur Agee. Despite his initial bafflement at being followed by a team of White filmmakers, he says he believes he was represented well. It helps that after the movie’s surprise success, producer Kartemquin Films brought everyone with a speaking role into a contract to be compensated for their participation. This is one of Subject’s more fruitful tangents, inviting a conversation among filmmakers about the pros and cons of paying subjects. Unfortunately, like every other topic raised, the film discards this issue far too quickly.
Directors Jennifer Tiexiera and Camilla Hall are diligent in scrutinizing every potential facet of their premise. Everything from the etymology of the term “subject” to documentary’s problematic historical entanglement with colonialist ethnography gets a moment in the spotlight. But just a moment. Subject feels pitched at viewers who are new to the form and presumably haven’t considered these issues. But these conversations have been happening within documentary since the inception of the art.
Subject’s premise is novel and has potential. But for all the film’s discussion of ethics, it has its own problems. Most of the subjects are credited as co-producers. This presumably goes hand in hand with the film’s emphasis on properly compensating and empowering documentary subjects. But the extent of this cooperation is not addressed in the film itself, and that raises the question of whether any subjects held inordinate control over their depictions. This is particularly pressing in relation to the two characters who were previously convicted of serious crimes (Peterson and Jesse Friedman of 2003’s Capturing the Friedmans). We live in an era of approved-by-the-celebrity-subject biographical docs like Miss Americana (2020) and Beckham (2023), so can we actually be sure we can trust such a project?
What makes this especially frustrating is that it would have been easy for Subject to both serve its participants and maintain audience trust. Tiexiera and Hall could have opted for radical transparency, granting the audience access to their process of engaging with their subjects. Perhaps the film could have demonstrated the power of editing by showing different ways to cut the same interview. The movie even hints at this by showing an interviewee recite and agree to a legal disclaimer before the conversation starts. But instead, it plays out mostly as a “Where are they now” feature with some obligatory nods to ethical concerns.
Subject is currently in theaters.