Subject explores the life-altering experience of sharing one’s life on screen through key participants of acclaimed documentaries The Staircase, Hoop Dreams, The Wolfpack, Capturing the Friedmans, and The Square. These erstwhile documentary “stars” reveal the highs and lows of their experiences as well as the everyday realities of having their lives put under a microscope. Also featuring commentary from such influential names in the doc world as Kirsten Johnson, Sam Pollard, Thom Powers and Sonya Childress, the film unpacks vital issues around the ethics and responsibility inherent in documentary filmmaking. 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.
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As filmmakers, we have both seen the participants of our past films struggle through some of the darkest moments in their lives, and we have found ourselves often challenged and conflicted as to how best we can support them. The idea for Subject was born when we found ourselves asking the question: is our drive to tell stories overriding our ability to put those we are filming first? We realized a critical need for a better understanding of what it is like to be on the other side of the lens. To feel like you are not in control of your narrative, or to see others achieve fame, profit, or otherwise benefit from your story?
Since we began shooting in 2018, we’ve watched our industry transform as documentary storytelling has become increasingly motivated by money and awards. When asked the question: “are we in a golden age of documentary filmmaking?,” interviewee Thom Powers quickly maintained that we are now in the “corporate age” of documentary. With the rise of global streaming platforms and audiences drawn to a more “docu-tainment” style of storytelling, we have seen the industry pushing the ethical limits of the genre’s traditional “observational” mission. Interviewee Sonya Childress said it best: “As long as it’s sexy, as long as it feels ripped from the headlines, as long as you can turn it around quick… you will be rewarded for it.”
We came together to make this film to identify what we can do better individually as filmmakers using a “nothing about us, without us” approach. Who better to help guide these conversations than the people who have spent decades on the other end of the camera? Our hope is that Subject can help inspire a larger industry wide conversation when it comes to some of these ethical challenges and shed light on the participant/filmmaker relationship for documentary audiences.