We’re currently enjoying what might be the golden age of documentaries, but what’s the cost of our collective addiction to harrowing real-life drama? In Subject, the brilliant new documentary about this exact form of media, filmmaking duo Camilla Hall and Jennifer Tiexiera unpack this complicated concept in uncomfortable detail while turning the tables and inviting viewers to question the difficult reality of why the worst moments of other people’s lives, are our free time entertainment.
At the new non-fiction film’s core are a handful of interview subjects from other hit documentaries. There’s the cast of 2015’s The Wolfpack, Crystal Moselle’s hard-hitting and heartfelt film about seven siblings forced to spend their childhood in the confines of a tiny New York apartment.
They’re joined by Margaret Ratliff, daughter of Michael Paterson, the crime novelist who was accused of killing his wife in 2004’s The Staircase, while Elaine and Jesse Friedman, the mother and son whose lives were torn apart following the paedophilia case at the heart of Andrew Jarecki’s stark 2003 hit Capturing The Friedmans, recount the impact sharing their story has had on their lives.
Moreover, familiar faces from similarly critically acclaimed films also pop up within the documentary, from 1994’s uplifting basketball underdog tale Hoop Dreams to Jehane Noujaim’s Egyptian crisis eye-opener The Square. However, instead of becoming a simple ‘where are they now?’ revisit, Hall and Tiexiera asked their subjects to ponder the grey-area questions surrounding responsible filmmaking practices.
Some of these questions included: Is it ethically correct for an outsider to share a story they’re not culturally ingrained in themselves? And, why don’t documentary subjects get paid for spilling their guts when the directors behind them reap the glitzy benefits? All of these issues and more are explored in a production that shines a light on not only our unusual viewing habits but the very industry that feeds them. For the filmmakers, it was a necessary conversation that was long overdue.
“We only wanted to look at the films that had impacted us in an emotional way,” suggests Hall, speaking to SCREENSHOT over Zoom alongside co-director Tiexiera. “However, there’s this realisation that’s been coming up in a lot of our Q&A sessions around ‘What am I watching?’ What does this say about us as a society and how can we start to fix the feelings we’re having about the content we’re watching?” Hall continued.
This is an issue that’s perhaps more deeply ingrained than most of us assume. The troubling full extent of the problem was best illustrated in February 2023, following the disappearance of Nicola Bulley in Lancashire. While authorities struggled to make sense of what had happened while also still trying to locate the missing woman, local police were plagued by a multitude of self-professed ‘true crime investigators’ who had taken it upon themselves to crack the case on TikTok. Surely, this wild mindset is a deeply misplaced by-product of confusing tragedy with content.
“Exactly,” agrees Hall, commenting on these parallels. “To watch the Nicola Bulley case unfold and see people knocking on doors and acting like TikTok detectives to the degree that the investigation was hindered and couldn’t move forward… It’s a sign of how consuming all of this true crime is affecting our actions and behaviour. And it’s out of control,” she adds. “The timing of our documentary is helpful in that we can have a moment to pause for thought.”
Separating people into good or evil, heroes or villains is a simplistic symptom of a documentary-obsessed culture. However, unlike the viewers, it’s not something that each film’s subjects can put aside as easily as we can switch shows when we lose interest. With Subject, participants were offered an unexpected second chance to set their narratives straight regarding the long-lasting fallout starring in these films has had. That’s not to say it didn’t take some serious convincing.
Tiexiera recalled: “Literally, the same week we ran the idea past Margaret [Ratliff], The Staircase was going to be re-released in over 200 countries. I think that was the moment she asked if we’d like to film her.” After sticking by her father throughout his trial, Ratliff had her every move scrutinised and her motives questioned during the show’s initial airing and then again during its adoption and rerun on Netflix during the height of the true-crime craze.
“She never wanted to be in front of a camera again but this was an opportunity to really tell her story,” adds Tiexiera. “I think she thought this would be a way to really humanise her family and have people think twice, which is what has happened. I don’t think we’ve had one screening where somebody hasn’t come up to [Ratliff] afterwards and say ‘I’m so sorry.’ I’m not entirely sure they even know what they’re sorry for. It’s just this realisation that she is in fact a real person,” the director continued.
Of course, revisiting painful old ground required Hall and Tiexiera to adopt a more considered approach. “We had a lot of concern about re-traumatising our participants,” admits Hall. “We worked with a trained psychologist to do one-on-one sessions with them, as well as group sessions and of course, they had a lot more agency in the way their stories were told.”
Another key element the duo were keen to unpick was the murky topic of paying documentary subjects. After all, people baring their souls is what gives true stories their power and yet these individuals are rarely at the receiving end of the same big paychecks and awards bestowed upon the filmmakers.
“It was the big elephant in the room,” reasons Tiexiera. “For a long time, standards and practices suggested you don’t pay your participants because it skews the story but you could argue the minute a camera enters a room, it skews the story. There’s this idea that we don’t pay participants if there’s a power imbalance, a marginalised community or if someone has experienced trauma but there are exceptions for athletes, politicians and actors. There are no one-size-fits-all answers but demystifying what you’re watching, who’s paying for it and who’s getting paid are the big questions we wanted to start conversations around.”
It’s a touchy subject that spills over into fiction too. During one revelatory moment, Ratliff recalls the time when Game of Thrones star Sophie Turner requested a phone call from her in order to help inform the actress’ portrayal of Ratliff in HBO’s fictionalised drama adaptation of The Staircase, which also starred big budget industry insiders Colin Firth and Toni Collette. This invitation to retread personal pain without any of the financial or critical reprisal that her fictional counterpart would surely receive speaks volumes about an industry in dire need of a shake-up.
“There’s a chance now to redefine things and for brands to decide how they want to move forward,” says Hall, commenting on how the medium’s rise in popularity has provided an unlikely opportunity for change. “Streaming platforms can decide what they want their identity to be; do they want to become known as exploitative or for creating hurtful material or do they want to shift the focus and become more conscious?”
It’s this ethical mindset that the filmmakers behind Subject hope to usher into the mainstream. In addition to offering participants psychological support, they’re also keen to include continued consent options and more accountability on the part of filmmakers to avoid additional trauma. This last point came into play during a small moment where Hall and Tiexiera almost used bloody footage from The Staircase involving Ratliff’s mother’s murder.
The daughter had stated to the directors: “Let me know when that is going to appear because it’ll re-traumatise me,” and so they simply took it out. “We didn’t need it and I don’t think for one second the movie lost any impact,” says Tiexiera. “Ethics are expensive and they take time but you ultimately owe that to your participants because they’re giving so much of themselves to you. These conversations are happening and we should all be using these resources moving forward.”
As for audiences, the documentary’s creators hope Subject can be used as a tool to better understand the content they’re consuming and the very real impact it has on those at its core. “This film is a microcosm of a much bigger movement, which is really reassuring,” continues Tiexiera, “collectively, we’re paying more attention.”
Hall echoes this thought: “We just wanted to encourage people to think twice before they watch something. It’s been encouraging to see people understanding the bigger picture.” She smiles and concludes our conversation by stating: “People have come up to us at screenings and said they’ll never watch a documentary in the same way again—that was really our goal.”