‘Subject’ is a thoughtful meta-examination of the documentary genre

By Abigail Lee, Magazine Editor

A documentary recently shown as part of the Bright Lights line up interrogates the ethics of the documentary genre itself. 

Directed by Jennifer Tiexiera and Camilla Hall, “Subject” follows the lives of several people who have been subjects in prominent documentaries. Through interviews with these subjects, documentarians, and scholars, the film sets up an ethical debate around the potentially exploitative nature of documentaries.

“Subject” begins by emphasizing Hollywood’s recent documentary boom—a sudden increase in the commercial success of the documentary genre in recent years. Documentaries are churned out each year, gaining millions of viewers. 

The genre’s allure often comes from its ability to pull engrossing narratives out of everyday material. But what do documentarians owe their subjects, whose stories are the basis of their work? Moreover, can any subject truly be prepared for the lasting effects a documentary has on their life in the months and years after it premieres? 

The film compellingly wrestles with these questions and provides various viewpoints. Some documentary subjects like Arthur Agee, featured in the 1994 film “Hoop Dreams,” look back on their experience with positive feelings. 

On the other hand, Margie Ratliff, a subject in the 2004 series “The Staircase,” still deals with the invasion of privacy from the public’s ongoing interest in a traumatic part of her past. 

Others face more mixed outcomes. Ahmed Hassan was able to reveal the political realities of Egypt as a subject in 2013’s “The Square,” but the exposure led to threats to his safety. 

The experts in the film also have differing opinions; some argue it’s necessary to compensate subjects for the time and stories they contribute, while others say this sets the stage for dramatic manipulation, making subjects more like actors. 

Tiexiera and Hall deftly layer these contrasting perspectives, while also building a subtle argument for the establishment of ethical standards and guidelines within documentary filmmaking. They provide primers on the major ethical considerations like racial sensitivity and power dynamics on set, but don’t settle on hard conclusions. 

Instead, they allow the audience to ponder the questions as much as the interviewees. If anything, the filmmakers argue for the proliferation of these kinds of conversations within the industry. 

The filmmakers made the smart move of not requiring audiences to have seen the documentaries discussed to understand their relevance. Tiexiera and Hall give a rundown of each documentary and incorporate brief footage from each. The juxtaposition of that footage and the interviews with the subjects is one of the most intriguing elements of “Subject.” 

This tactic extracts the former subjects from the narrative confines of the documentaries through which they were publicized. Out of the frame of a compact dramatic arc, the subjects become real people—not just actors or characters. This realization itself poses a question about how documentary subjects remain static in our cultural memory. 

In a virtual Q&A after the screening, Tiexiera explained that she refers to the subjects in the film as “participants” instead, and that they were brought on as co-producers so they could have a say in their representation. This reframing underscores the need for a wider evaluation of the genre and provides a glimpse of what new ethical frameworks could look like. 

“Subject” offers an efficient and comprehensive first step, setting the stage for such a change. Whatever answers to these ethical dilemmas audiences find, the questions are undeniably haunting.