Subject debuted at the 2022 Tribeca Film Festival and is going into limited theatrical release tomorrow, November 3.
Unlike the characters in a fiction film, people portrayed in documentaries have their lives continue after the documentary’s end credits have rolled up the screen and the audience has filed out of the theater. Directors Jennifer Tiexiera and Camilla Hall have turned their cameras on to see what happens after other documentarians have turned their cameras off in the aptly named Subject. The film explores the bonds between filmmaker and subject, formed intentionally or not, what responsibilities the filmmakers may have to their subjects after their documentary is completed and what kind of lives those featured in documentaries have had following their brief burst of fame. This is a film which raises questions but doesn’t necessarily give concrete answers and should probably be part of any filmmaking or journalism course, especially one that focuses on the ethics of such endeavors.
Tiexiera and Hall track the post-filming lives of a handful of people whom may be familiar to documentary aficionados – Jesse Friedman of Capturing The Friedmans, Margie Ratliff of The Staircase, Arthur Agee from Hoop Dreams, Mukunda Angula from The Wolfpack and Ahmed Hassan from The Square specifically. Some have found a way to turn their moment in the spotlight to something positive, like Agee, who now works as a motivational speaker in his community. Others are not so lucky. Ratliff wonders if she really had a choice to participate in the film she was in as a teenager. Friedman summed up the issue with having a portion of your life frozen in the amber of a documentary while time marches on for its subjects. “Today if you watch that film it has nothing to do with me and my life. The movie was nineteen years ago depicting events that happened sixteen years before that. My arrest and being in that movie are both a distant past for me and yet they have both defined my entire life.”
Another question that gets put under the microscope her is whether or not the subject of a documentary should be financially compensated for their time participating in the filming. Filmmakers on both sides make compelling arguments as to why one should or should not compensate their subjects. Ironically, though, the documentary doesn’t address whether the filmmakers themselves have paid any of their participants for their time to appear here. (Although, some of them are listed as producers, so it is conceivable that there is some remuneration involved on some level.)
Don’t worry, Subject isn’t as navel-gazing as it might sound. Nor is it as accusatory as it could have been. Triexiera and Hall turn over the screen to the former, and now current again, documentary subjects to tell their tale. The directors of the original documentaries themselves are absent. So yes, while there is mostly like some shaping of these narratives by the directors, it is all coming from the subjects themselves. Triexiera and Hall use their experiences to interrogate not just the documentary filmmaking process itself, and the audience to reflect on their own relationship with documentaries and their subjects.