Review by Jonathan Berk
At one point in the film Subject, Caroline Libresco says, “We are intrinsically connected to story.” It’s a sentiment that manages to feel both obvious and profound simultaneously. In an age where media is almost always available to us all, we consume stories at record numbers. There is a clear interest in “true” or “real” stories and documentaries — which once brought on the ire of bored history students everywhere — and they have become far more mainstream as a result. An increase in interest means an increase in production, which makes the focus of Subject feel all the more poignant.
This film is a documentary about documentary filmmaking that steps back to ask important questions about the process. Directors Jennifer Tiexiera and Camilla Hall explore key ethical questions about the genre that has found itself in a “golden era” of sorts, largely due to streaming services. Through interviews with former subjects of big-time documentaries and people involved in the filmmaking process, Subject explores important ethical questions about the medium.
Ultimately, the premise of this movie is undeniable. A meta-commentary on the very thing being made is far too compelling to not watch. Even while the film is questioning why audiences are drawn to things like this, it is providing the very type of content it is investigating. However, the film wants the audience to do a lot of the heavy lifting.
For the most part, the film does a great job of raising many of the questionable topics the medium presents: compensation for the subjects, who gets to tell these stories and representation in general, the connection of the filmmaker and the “subject”, the objectivity of the filmmaker, life after the premiere, and the concept of consent and exactly what the “subjects” are consenting to. It doesn’t propose any answers, nor does it feel like it comes to a final stance on whether we should continue to make documentaries or not. Instead, audiences are left with the burden of choosing for themselves where they stand on all of these issues.
The main documentaries referenced and those films key participants included in this movie are The Staircase, Hoop Dreams, The Wolfpack, Capturing the Friedmans, and The Square. There are many other documentaries referenced, but these five feature interviews with subjects and — in the case of Hoop Dreams and Friedmans — the filmmakers. The weaving of these films and their investigation of the impact the documentary had on their lives both during and after the release is inherently interesting. As stated, we are drawn to stories, and for these people, we are drawn to their stories yet again.
Fans of the genre will have likely internally grappled with these questions many times already; however, Subject making it the focus feels necessary. It’s impossible to watch something like The Wolfpack and not question if the filmmaker should be injecting more assistance into the lives of these siblings and their mother, who are trapped by a cruel father/husband. Whether news reporting or long-form documentary filmmaking, there is an undeniable responsibility to handle these “true” stories with care. These are people, after all, not inanimate objects at the end of our microscopes.
Subject will be in theaters on November 3.