A well-told story ends when the credits roll, but not so documentaries. There, in most cases, the lives of the people depicted on-screen continue on, transformed by the fact of being filmed — and even more by whatever attention the project ignites in the culture at large. That’s why, in the hundreds of post-screening Q&As I’ve seen for docs over the years, the same questions come up virtually without fail: What’s happened since? How are the movie’s subjects doing now?
In “Subject,” co-directors Jennifer Tiexiera and Camilla Hall catch up with the people at the center of several major documentaries — from “Hoop Dreams” and “The Wolfpack” to “Capturing the Friedmans” and “The Staircase” — to see how their involvement in such projects changed their lives. That may be the hook that lures in audiences, though the film is far more than just a years-later epilogue to those high-profile docs (in the case of Michael Peterson murder-trial miniseries “The Staircase,” the original project had already gotten two follow-ups and a dramatic retelling starring Colin Firth). Over a broad-ranging 97 minutes, Tiexiera and Hall lay the foundation for an essential discussion about the philosophy and ethics of nonfiction filmmaking — a subject so vast, it easily might have spawned a TV series or media studies course (and probably still should).
“A documentary is not capturing someone’s story. It’s becoming part of someone’s story,” explains Thom Powers, one of the world’s leading doc curators (at the Toronto and DOCNYC film fests). That observation calls to mind the mural spray-painted on Main Street the year Banksy attended Sundance, in which a kneeling cameraman plucks a flower as he films it — an image that would have made an ideal poster for this movie. A director can’t document without disturbing the subject. For some, even the word “subject” implies a problematic (and potentially exploitative) dynamic between the people on either side of the lens.
The helmers have so much ground to cover, they don’t spend much time rehashing history — though maybe they should have. A century ago, Westerners ventured out for realms unknown (to them), coming back with films like “Nanook of the North” and “Gow the Headhunter” that exoticized the cultures they depicted. To some extent, the tendency remains, even in such well-meaning, closer-to-home portraits as “Paris Is Burning” and “Titicut Follies.”
As “Minding the Gap” director Bing Liu explains, “There’s a movement to decolonize docs nowadays, putting the storytelling back into the hands of the people who the story is about.” Liu is one of the few filmmakers interviewed for the film — since the directors made an effort to focus on the subjects — although it’s telling that another, “He Named Me Malala” director Davis Guggenheim, says, “For too long, the people who’ve been able to tell the story are people who look like me.” White and male, he means, retreating into himself as he says it.
Nonfiction is actually one of the first corners of the infamously male-centric field where women made inroads, thanks to lower production costs and the possibility of operating with a skeleton crew. Biting off far more than it can digest as it is, “Subject” doesn’t have time to get lost in details, but makes the case that the field benefits from diversity. While one hopes that “Subject” won’t discourage any responsible director from making docs, Liu suggests a fair question — “How do the people in the film feel about me telling the story?”
Now that cameras are accessible to nearly everyone, filmmakers are often made by the events they chronicle, rather than the other way around. I’d point to Abraham Zapruder, who captured the Kennedy assassination, though “Subject” cites “The Square,” catching up with Ahmed Hassan, who was both a participant in and a camera witness to the Egyptian revolution of 2011.
Director Werner Herzog (who doesn’t come up in “Subject,” despite his unusual doc-ography) has frequently argued that he’s not a journalist. But many of the issues this movie discusses overlap with news media: Should storytellers pay their subjects, for access or else a cut of whatever profit their films take in? Is it appropriate to give participants a say in the final cut? (As with authorized biographies, such approvals nearly always yields a compromised and overly flattering result.) What moral or psychological support, if any, does the crew owe people in navigating the hardship experienced on camera, not to mention any notoriety sparked by the film’s reception? That’s essentially the latest version of the old debate about whether it’s ethical for doc makers to stay objective: Should they film a starving baby or intervene to save its life?
“I’d like to be stripped from ‘The Staircase’ completely,” says Margie Ratliff, daughter of Michael Peterson, who feels her family trauma was unfairly scrutinized. Ratliff serves as a producer on “Subject,” explaining on camera that she wants other documentary participants to have the “power” and “agency” she felt deprived of on “The Staircase.” Ratliff communicates her understanding of the subject of “Subject” and gives the directors permission to use her interview accordingly, demonstrating how she feels transparency ought to sound (compared with, say, “Capturing the Friedmans,” whose subjects thought they were participating in a film about birthday clowns).
“Subject” is by no means a definitive ruling on the responsibilities of documentary filmmaking. But given the ever-exploding popularity of nonfiction offerings, the movie isn’t just a philosophical primer; it’s a chance for audiences to contemplate what goes into the content they consume — from reality TV to true-crime portraits, which consistently rank among the most-watched offering on streamers like Netflix. It’s easy to form an opinion about the subject of a great many docs, but unsettling to realize how little we know about how they were treated.