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Reality Bites

Adriel Gonzalez

Subject (2022)

Movies about movies are rarely a bad idea, especially when shown as part of the Tribeca Festival. And producer-directors Camilla Hall and Jennifer Tiexiera hit on an extraordinary idea with “Subject”: revisit the subjects of famous documentaries and discuss how the experience of being captured on screen affected their lives. They also scored a great coup with the participation of Margie Ratliff, i.e., one of the daughters from “The Staircase,” which is currently having another moment. But in its analysis of how their participation in a documentary altered their lives, they equate two kinds of participants; and their choice to do so is a misdirect from a very serious mistake.

For Ms. Ratliff “The Staircase” (and all its subsequence adaptations) is not entertainment. It was her real life, and her mother. She agreed to be in it as a grieving teenager afraid to lose her father – Michael Peterson, who is also interviewed, and who then as now has little to lose by speaking to journalists and/or filmmakers, since he was the one on trial for murder. It’s his life that was at risk and his reputation that he was trying to save by inviting the cameras in. Ms. Ratliff was a key participant, but in these terms she was collateral damage. Her agreement for the film was essential for it to go ahead, but her continuing upset at the world’s reaction to “The Staircase” is obviously important and valid, but also not quite the point. The movie wasn’t about her.

Arthur Agee – who was also a teenager when he appeared in “Hoop Dreams,” which was absolutely about him – has had long practice in answering questions about his participation in that film. He was also a young man from a poor family with few prospects and nothing to lose. But the filmmakers behind “Hoop Dreams” were all white men, and Mr. Agee answers some thoughtful questions about whether they had the right to tell his story. But 1994 is a long time away, the technology needed to film is significantly more accessible now; and there’s a wider appetite for true-life stories that no longer need studio gatekeeping to get made. But also in 1994 the internet barely existed; now documentaries live forever in a way which wasn’t dreamed of even 20 years ago. So decisions which might have been ignored or forgotten can now haunt your entire life – or enable you to have a pretty nice one (whether or not your participation is paid, which is a separate debate). To compare a decision made in the early ’90s to one being made now is a false parallel.

It’s not luck of the draw, either – the biggest impact is how the director changed the story they were telling. Ms. Hall and Ms. Tiexiera said they didn’t want to interview any documentary directors, but they cheated by including Bing Liu, Oscar-nominated for “Minding the Gap,” which included himself as a subject. They also fudged the question of diversity by showing clips from documentaries made around the world, but interviewing only one non-American participant (Ahmed Hassan of “The Square,” currently in exile in Turkey). All these issues of intersectionality are fascinating, but the rush with which the issues are discussed leaves the audience bewildered. Mr. Mohammed was caught up in his film because he was an active participant in the Egyptian Crisis protests, while Mr. Liu filmed his friends in childhood play and only realized later he could shape the footage into a film. The decisions and motivations were not the same, so neither are issues around the involvement.

In addition to Ms. Ratliff, the directors also got Jesse Friedman (of “Capturing the Friedmans”) and his partner Lisabeth Walsh to appear. They met after she rented the movie by accident and afterward felt compelled to seek him out. But as they describe the life they’ve led together in the shadow of the documentary (along with, well, everything else), a bombshell gets dropped that is given more emphasis than it’s strictly due. It seems the directors here are not above the kind of tricks and editorial interference seen all the time in lesser documentaries. But even here Ms. Hall and Ms. Tiexiera equate the experiences of Mr. Friedman – who also had very good reasons to participate in documentaries about himself – and those of his mother Elaine, who participated because she was already in the room, not because she especially wanted to be there. This attempt at creating parallels where none exist is a strange and peculiar choice, not least because the well-known issues about director Andrew Jarecki’s direct impact on the lives of the Friedmans aren’t even mentioned.

So is “Subject” a bad movie? It’s a good primer for explaining the issues people working in documentary do not grapple with nearly enough, and a pretty decent introduction to the most successful American documentaries of the past 20 years (a few earlier ones do get a look in, but history here starts with “Spellbound” from 2002). Ms. Ratliff is given the last word, which is thoughtful, but as it’s a warning to think twice, it’s hard not to wonder why she didn’t take her own advice.

Well, until you read the credits, and you see Mr. Agee, Ms. Ratliff and Mr. Friedman are listed as coproducers (with five others). Their participation in the behind-the-scenes work of this film isn’t mentioned in the movie itself. That means “Subject” has neither objectivity nor credibility; and it’s a disgrace that the movie – so not actually a documentary – chose to leave this out. It is never acceptable to play with people’s real lives; but if you must, you have an absolute obligation to tell your audience. It’s become more obvious that this is no longer seen as important – the blurred lines of reality TV have enabled documentarians to think they can play the same game. The decisions and motivations are not the same, so neither are issues around the involvement. No one gets to have their cake and eat it, and movies purporting to tell the truth absolutely have to stop lying to us.


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