Documentary film Subject explores the life-altering experience of sharing your life on screen, through key participants of acclaimed documentaries The Staircase (2004), Hoop Dreams (1994), The Wolfpack (2015), Capturing the Friedmans (2003), and The Square (2013).

The feature goes on general release in the UK and Ireland this week.

Subject unpacks vital issues around the ethics and responsibility inherent in documentary filmmaking.

In this Q and A with Televisual (see below), the filmmakers Jennifer Tiexiera (P.S. Burn This Letter Please, Dragonslayer) and Camilla Hall (Copwatch), go deeper into the reasons why this is a documentary for our times and their own duty of care as documentary makers.

The film features the erstwhile documentary ‘stars’, including Hoop Dreams’ Arthur Agee, Jessie Friedman, Margie Peterson of The Staircase and Ahmed Hassan of The Square, revealing the highs and lows of their experiences as well as the everyday realities of having their lives put under a microscope.

The film also includes commentary from such influential names in the documentary world as cinematographer Kirsten Johnson (CitizenFour), filmmaker Sam Pollard (MLK/FBI), Thom Powers (Toronto International Film Festival) and Sonya Childress (Color Congress).

As tens of millions of people consume documentaries in an unprecedented “golden era,” Subject urges audiences to consider the often profound impact on their participants.

Q and A with the filmmakers Jennifer Tiexiera and Camilla Hall

Why did the subjects of the film agree to be subjects and what constitutes duty of care in the case of Subject?

In many ways it was a sacrifice for the main participants to take part in our film because they re-exposed themselves to the public again in a way that one can never predict. Ultimately, they decided that tackling documentary film ethics in this way was worth the risk of re-exposing themselves so that they could help others. Because the participants in Subject were at risk of re-traumatization, our duty of care was to have a participant advocate, Dr Kameelah Rashad who is also a trained psychologist and our executive producer to make sure that the participants had access to mental health care throughout the process. We also made the decision to rewrite their releases to focus on what was most important to them, credit them as co-producers and make sure that they had financial compensation in the form of points on the backend.

Why is it more important than ever to explore the experience of the subjects in documentary?

With the rise in popularity of documentaries, audiences are more in need than ever of a better understanding of what they are consuming.

In the film you draw a difference between the commonly referenced golden age and “corporate age” for documentaries? What do you mean by this and why does this impact codes of ethics?

With the creation of more “content” to serve the demands of more and more subscribers across the streamers, there has been more pressure on production companies to work faster and cheaper in order to compete. It is in this battle for dollars we see the biggest risk for ethics getting left behind.

Traditionally, it might be the director, or producer, who took on this responsibility? Given Jennifer’s background as an editor, should this responsibility be spread across the whole team during production?

It absolutely should. How can we as editors make important decisions that could potentially affect the rest of a participant’s life (or a community’s well being) without ever meeting them in person or knowing their hopes and dreams for the projects. This responsibility needs to fall on the entire team at different stages of the process, especially since the way a participant feels about a project can change over the life of the project.

Can Camilla expand a little on the parallels, or non-parallels between her background in print journalism and TV/ film regarding codes of conduct?

Coming from a career at Bloomberg and The Financial Times it always felt like there were clear checks and balances for the publishing of work and also strict rules regarding how we engaged with sources. However, moving into independent documentary filmmaking there were no such guidelines in place and it really felt like as long as you could raise money for a project you could pretty much tell any story. While this was very freeing it was also terrifying.

Do you think that the TV and film industries are going backwards, rather than forwards, in this area, despite much talk about wellbeing in TV and film?

There’s actually a lot to be positive about, it feels like we really are moving in the right direction. We’ve seen changes already from PBS in terms of their guidelines as well as Sundance shifting their applications to include language for participant care. We know that the streamers are looking at a lot of these areas and actually re-assessing how to approach specific areas such as payment of participants.

What would you like to see done in furtherance of ensuring a greater duty of care for the subjects of films?

We’d like to see continued support for institutions like the Documentary Accountability Working Group who are helping to create the resources needed for our industry moving forward. We are also very excited to support Margie Ratliff’s new non-profit the Documentary Participants Empowerment Alliance. We advocate for mental health resources to be provided to all participants working in any trauma-related projects.

Picture credit: Cory Knights



Pippa Considine

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