How does it feel?
When Tiger King was released in 2020, Twitter fired up and Netflix obsessors had a new documentary to stick their teeth into. Mystery, murder, jealousy, drug addicts, tigers and a ‘Karen’ – what more could you want from TV? It’s safe to say documentaries are currently having a moment, scroll through any screening platform and you’ll find portals into true crime serial killers, self-help gurus, artists, sporting heroics, musicians and monumental world events – we just can’t get enough of hearing other people’s stories.
This is the starting point of Subject, a new documentary about documentaries which poses the question: “In the golden age of documentary, who benefits?” Here, directors Jennifer Tiexiera and Camilla Hall dissect the ethics of responsibility inherent in the genre, interviewing participants from some of the most acclaimed documentaries – The Staircase, Hoop Dreams, The Wolfpack and Capturing the Friedmans – to discover what it was like being trapped in extraordinary circumstances, and having their story placed under a microscope for the whole world to poke at. Ahead of Subject’s release, we spoke to directors Jennifer Tiexiera and Camilla Hall to find out why and how the genre is in the process of a much-needed change.
Arijana Zeric: There seems to be some irritation with the word ‘subject’. Some in your film took offence to it…
Jennifer Tiexiera: Pretty much across the board, the word made them feel like a science experiment. We use the word ‘participant’.
Camilla Hall: We did a lot of workshopping with our producers and co-producers to come up with a language we would use as a team and that was the word we all saddled on. In the UK they use ‘contributor’ a lot, ‘subject’ is not super common, but it does seem to be in journalism.
JT: We also want to make sure we credit people for jobs they did because these are all participants who have been in other films before.
CH: We wanted to try something different and see what it feels like to work with our participants and see what came out as a result – the whole thing was a massive exploration.
JT: Ultimately the decision to make [the participants] co-producers was so instrumental in the creation of what Subject became, not just in terms of watching cuts and giving feedback but also brainstorming. It wasn’t symbolic in any way, they actually did those jobs and the co-producer role so it made sense, which is a pretty unusual thing.
AZ: Did you have an outcome in mind when you started this project?
JT: We both come from different backgrounds, Camila comes from a journalism background and was quite surprised by the lack of guidelines in the industry. I came from an editing background where I was making huge decisions about people’s lives without ever meeting them or knowing their true intentions for the project. The better I did my job, the more ethically questionable it became in the name of storytelling. We were hoping to start these conversations just to start uncovering some of the resources, there were mumblings in the industry of people who were already starting to do the work. It’s important to look at the imbalances of power between the makers and participants. Our industry is very vast, documentaries encompass all different kinds of films, and there is no one size fits all formula. We were hoping this would take the conversations from behind closed doors and propel them to the forefront.
“It’s important to look at the imbalances of power between the makers and participants.”
AZ: How much research did you do beforehand or was it more of an organic process?
CH: It was definitely a very organic process. We didn’t go in with conclusions at all. We went in very open-minded and it was an exploration, we didn’t know where it would ultimately lead us. What’s tricky is that each person had their own individual experience and feelings about the process. That was one thing we learned, there can be similarities but it’s always individual.
AZ: In your introduction, you mention there is a massive boom in the industry at the moment. As filmmakers, what do you think is the attraction?
JT: I think it’s the idea of telling human stories, the empathy that’s involved and learning about something you would never normally have access to. In the corporate sense of things, when you look at our budget on independent films of 500 or 600,000 dollars, that’s a pretty good return for Netflix creating a 30 million dollar Marvel movie… but getting the viewership of something as big as Tiger King.
CH: I think it’s that shift from a golden age to a corporate age. For many creatives, it’s less appealing because it’s a much more homogenised and formulaic storytelling. Documentaries are being pre-scripted before the cameras are turned on and that was not the field I thought I was getting into. The changes we’ve seen literally in a decade within this field are extraordinary.
AZ: In the film you mention Nanook of the North, which is considered one of the first documentaries ever made back in 1922…
CH: The whole premise of the documentary started from this kind of colonial standpoint. Entering a community of others and showing it without any knowledge or understanding of that community was the starting point for the genre. There are so many different types of problematic storytelling that have happened over the course of time. I think right now we are in a moment of reckoning and asking ourselves as a community, “What are the type of films we want to make and is this healthy for the people we’re filming?”
“We were hoping this would take the conversations from behind closed doors and propel them to the forefront.”
Still, ‘Subject’ by Jennifer Tiexiera and Camilla Hall, 2023
AZ: Should a documentary help the participant or rather try to deliver an objective point of view?
JT: I think that’s what differentiates us from journalism, I never thought for a minute a documentary could be objective. The minute you walk into a room with a camera it is no longer objective because there are forces at work which make it impossible to be objective, it’s an oxymoron. I would say my films last sometimes from five to twenty years, so this is not something where we’re coming in for a story for a couple of hours – this is a partnership. I cannot expect my participants to give that much of their lives and not benefit from it at all. It seems kind of abusive and ultimately I don’t think it makes for a great film.
CH: Really early on in my career I had a conversation with filmmaker Frederick Wiseman when I still had my journalistic brain and I asked him, “How do I make sure I’m truthful?” Documentaries are not the truth, they’re just not. A documentary is something else, it’s not journalism. It’s a different beast.
AZ: For a genre that claims to show things as they are, it can be misleading because many people think they are watching something truly authentic.
CH: Films being made now are rollercoaster rides, there is no other purpose than to keep you in your seat. The level of sensationalism got so extreme. all that’s ever asked is, “What’s the next thing going to be about?” Things are really out of control in my opinion, especially in the true crime genre. and now you have the true con genre as well, which is all about scam artists.
Still, ‘Subject’ by Jennifer Tiexiera and Camilla Hall, 2023
“…it’s the idea of telling human stories, the empathy that’s involved and learning about something you would never normally have access to.”
AZ: How much should the director be involved with their subjects? There is a strong sense of collaboration here.
CH: We should be striving for more clarity. Filmmakers should be transparent about what that relationship looks like and what the film really is. Interestingly, you now see filmmakers being more and more a part of the film.
JT: Margie [Ratliff, from The Staircase] has been travelling so much with the film, she went to every single screening. A few weeks ago we were at a festival in Palm Springs and every time I do a Q&A with her somebody walks up to her afterwards and says, “I’m so sorry.” They are apologising because they lived through her trauma and never thought about how it affected her until now. Now maybe they will watch the next thing a little bit differently, we always said this film was going to be a conversation starter at the very least.
AZ: It was very interesting to hear from Margie because she has been exposed in such an extreme way whilst being underage.
CH: She’s such an integral part of the film because it started with Margie. When I met her I thought, “This could have been me.” Nothing that has happened has anything to do with her or is her fault but suddenly she is brought into this circus. She is not trying to have the limelight and because Margie is so unassuming, I thought we had an interesting perspective. She did Subject because she really wanted to get this message across.
JT: This story has been rehashed over and over again, whether it’s a Lifetime movie, a Netflix buy-in from Sundance, or an HBO Max series. You have someone like Arthur [Agee] who has made his life out of Hoop Dreams because the film enabled him to buy his mum a house. He didn’t make it to the NBA but has been able to survive with the money he’s made off of Hoop Dreams but Margie hasn’t seen any of that. She has years of back-paid bills for trauma therapy and student loans while something is profiting off of her family trauma and the death of her mother. She has nothing to show for it except more trauma. We feel extremely close to her, she has trusted us with her story and for her, it’s been 24 years of her life on camera.
Subject will be released in UK and Irish cinemas from March 3rd.