As a film journo who’s spent the past half-decade interviewing the characters (or protagonists – as I’ve had a prickly aversion to the word «subject» since long before its colonialist connotation became generally accepted) in front of the nonfiction lens for my «Doc Star of the Month» column at Documentary magazine, Jennifer Tiexiera, and Camilla Hall’s Subject was a no-brainer to catch. And lucky for me, the tongue-in-cheek-titled film, world-premiering in the Documentary Competition at the 2022 Tribeca Festival (June 8-19), turned out to be one of those rare selections that actually lives up to its «essential viewing» synopsis hype. Tiexiera and Hall, who met at Tribeca Festival 2017 (with the premieres of A Suitable Girl and Copwatch, respectively), have now joined forces to highlight the highs and lows of the real-life, flesh-and-blood folks who’ve put their mental, physical, and emotional health on the line in five of the genre’s highest-profile (sometimes controversial) docs: The Staircase, Hoop Dreams, The Wolfpack, Capturing the Friedmans, and The Square; while also interviewing a wide array of insightful academics, experts and, most notably, fellow documentary directors (though, in the smartest of twists, none behind the aforementioned quintet).
«Documentary is not capturing someone’s story – it’s becoming part of someone’s story,» explains Thom Powers, head of Toronto International Film Festival’s doc program and the artistic director of DOC NYC. Powers is just one of the many industry vets sprinkled throughout Subject to provide much-appreciated insider context. (Other notables include Guggenheim and Fulbright Fellowship-honored media scholar Patricia Aufderheide and four-time Oscar-nominated Kartemquin Films co-founder Gordon Quinn – who admits he wouldn’t necessarily agree to be a «subject.») And just as crucial to a well-rounded understanding of the implications of laying oneself bare for public consumption is the filmmakers’ choice to hear from a slate of BIPOC directors – Peabody/Emmy/Academy Award-nominated Sam Pollard#; Brown Girls Doc Mafia co-originator Sonya Childress#; multi-award-winning investigative journalist Assai Boundaoui#; human-rights activist, husband and wife team Joe Brewster and Michèle Stephenson#; and Academy Award-nominated Bing Liu (Kartemquin Films’ Minding the Gap), to name just an accolade-laden few.
«The camera is like a weapon in Egypt. It’s so dangerous,» says protagonist/cinematographer Ahmed Hassan, who was literally shot during the making of The Square – and who handed his camera over to the doctor attending to him so as to keep filming. (That Egyptian Revolution doc, in turn, inspired Winter on Fire: Ukraine’s Fight for Freedom, according to its director Evgeny Afineevsky. Docs do indeed connect the world.) It’s a sentiment echoed by acclaimed director-cinematographer Kirsten Johnson, who notes that cameras «were made to look like guns,» the person behind them dubbed a «shooter.» There’s no escaping the fact that documentaries were originally tied to ideas of government, the military, and of course, colonialism. «We get trained to think like a predator,» Johnson candidly adds.
«Documentary is not capturing someone’s story – it’s becoming part of someone’s story»
But what if that weapon falls into the wrong hands – or at least potentially problematic hands? Childress brings up the fact that Black filmmakers, initially overwhelmingly inspired by Hoop Dreams, are now finding themselves questioning both the process and the POV through which it got made (i.e., by three white guys). And this is «complicating the story of Hoop Dreams.» For his part, Bing Liu, who was a segment director on Hoop Dreams helmer Steve James’s America to Me, speaks on the need to decolonize docs. «How do the characters feel?» and «Is there a better director for this story?» are tough questions that have to be addressed. (As a director/character himself – who sought therapy during the making of Minding the Gap – Liu is also painfully aware of the form’s limitations. His film allowed him to reconnect with his mom – though not necessarily for them to grow any closer.)
That said, when it comes to the Hoop Dreams protagonists, Arthur Agee is unequivocally enthusiastic about his decision to allow a white crew to follow him – especially after seeing his dad use a clip from the film (of his scoring drugs at a playground while the young Agee was scoring baskets) in his post-recovery testimony to become a reverend. However, Agee also had the added bonus, quite literally, of being cut into the doc’s (completely unforeseen) blockbuster profits at the same level as the filmmakers. Of course, the still unsettled ethics over whether or not to pay nonfiction characters is a question few Black documentarians, not even Spike Lee collaborator Sam Pollard, have ever had the good/bad luck to even wrestle with.
But what if that weapon falls into the wrong hands – or at least potentially problematic hands?
As for Jesse Friedman, Capturing the Friedmans was his lucky break. «They would have killed me in prison,» he states, had the doc not been made. And because of the film, his future wife Lisa says she was able to know Jesse «at an intimate level» even before meeting him. (Which is also rather disturbing on a parasocial level. Little surprise, they’re now exes.) On the other hand, Jesse’s mom, Elaine’s experience seems to have been the polar opposite. According to Elaine, being given the chance to appear in a documentary is a bit like being tempted by the apple in the Garden of Eden. A tantalizing offer one can’t refuse but will come to regret. (A metaphor Pat Aufderheide would likely concur with, as the public intellectual had problems with the film right from its Sundance premiere – when she noticed attendees crossing the street to avoid Jesse. No one wanted to be near him. «I don’t know what good it did anyone,» she says about the Grand Jury Prize-nabbing doc, which went on to garner an Oscar nom later that year. So I guess the team and Jesse might disagree.) «He (director Andrew Jarecki) had an idea, and he used us,» Elaine adds, calling Sundance a «charade.»
«There’s the world where you make the film. And the world where you present the film,» Assai Boundaoui explains. The hope is that «the two will never meet.» Headlines about the Sabaya controversy (Boundaoui has been a vocal advocate on the topic of trauma-informed storytelling) flash across the screen as the Algerian-American filmmaker suggests that festivals reach out to nonfiction characters to ask about their process of consent before finalizing their documentary programs. Though Kirsten Johnson also points out that even after signing consent forms, filmmakers and protagonists might think they are agreeing to participate in the same story when, in fact, they are decidedly not.
Indeed, Margie Ratliff, whose dad Michael Peterson is the star of The Staircase, admits to feeling pressure from both her father – whose murder exoneration hung in the balance – and the French team as well. For Margie, participation was a given, not a choice. That said, she also takes pains to acknowledge that her relationship with the film is different from her relationship with the film crew – which might be less surprising in light of the fact that her dad and the doc’s editor, Sophie Brunet, unexpectedly ended up falling in love. (Of course, that plot twist only propels the riveting ambiguity behind The Staircase to queasily meta heights: Is Peterson a loving family man wrongly accused of killing his wife? Or a seductive psychopath able to hoodwink both the criminal justice system and a sophisticated Parisian editor? Not to mention Dr. Phil.)
As for how involved is too involved when it comes to director and character, Thom Powers brings up the Maysles vs. Kopple differential – the former seeing production as a life-altering experience, the latter often never seeing her characters again. Kirsten Johnson is actually excited that Subject is about protagonists minus any counterbalancing input from the directors of their films. After all, those behind the lens know next to nothing about their characters’ post-production afterlives – thus, Subject presents a chance to even the playing field; for stars to take back their story long after the filmmakers have had their cinematic say.
Rebecca Day – the only (film) psychotherapist to be interviewed – says the doc world isn’t good with setting boundaries. Indeed, Boundaoui even stresses that therapy should be a line item in the budget – and that it’s «not an accident we don’t have guidelines.» Though budgeting for therapy could be a hard sell to producers, especially since we’re in «an economic war, a political war of information,» as Joe Brewster succinctly says of our new nonfiction «corporate age.»
The ramifications of which seem to have fallen especially hard on Michael Peterson’s daughter now that the Colin Firth-starring four-parter based on The Staircase is streaming and «going to make my life harder,» Margie laments. She’s been thrust into a completely different world, one that she «did not sign up for.» In fact, the daughter who’s spent nearly two decades being cinematically re-traumatized by her mother’s death would very much prefer to have been stripped entirely from the HBO Max limited series. (Ironically, the French filmmakers themselves now feel «betrayed» by director Antonio Campos and his star-studded version. Losing power over one’s story, like karma, is a bitch.) Instead, she’s got X-Men actress Sophie Turner fictionalizing the absolute worst time of her life. The only agency Margie has left, it seems, is appearing in Subject – a way to get out her message that those on camera can and should demand that their own truth be heard.