”A movie is fixed in time, but life isn’t,” says one of the interviewees in “Subject,” a film very much of its moment. It’s somewhat remarkable that no one had yet thought to make something in the vein of what Jennifer Tiexiera and Camilla Hall have achieved, a consideration of the impact that letting a filmmaker into one’s life has on a person, but it is undoubtedly the product of an era where documentary ethics are increasingly a topic of fierce debate connected to a host of larger cultural issues and the growing popularity of nonfiction films has been making more movie stars than ever who don’t necessarily seek the spotlight. Tiexiera and Hall can’t cover everything, though they try with a flood of clips from documentaries of every era, begging to be seen in a different light as members of the documentary community discuss their hopes for best practices and how some filmmakers have fallen short, but the real draw is signing up a few past participants to release forms once more to reflect on their experiences during filming and the aftermath of films they were in, usually conflicted at best about their involvement.
Margie Ratliff laughs as she gives her consent, doing something she likely never imagined she’d do again after being involved in “The Staircase” about the death of her mother and an ensuing trial where her father was tried for her murder. As much as it clearly takes out of Ratliff to be reminded of this tragedy time and again, Tiexiera and Hall wisely wrap the film around her as a centerpiece, returning to her just as the documentary that she first appeared in has revisited her – first when after an acclaimed yet modestly watched run on a cable channel initially, the miniseries took on a much larger audience when it was revived at Netflix and eventually adapted into an HBO miniseries. Obviously this wasn’t what Ratliff signed up for – in fact, at 16 she didn’t feel she had much of a choice in the matter even then – but the advent of streaming services where more films are made and seemingly available one place or another for eternity has made it more of a burden when it won’t go away, making it one question among many that nonfiction filmmakers have to ask themselves now that likely wouldn’t have crossed their mind a decade ago.
“Subject” comes across as such a contemporary conversation that it isn’t difficult to imagine it being dated reasonably quickly as matters such as compensation for participants and authorship are now actively a part of industry summits with the hope of actionable resolutions, though the filmmakers pull back the curtain on those conversations comprehensively. Still, what will ensure the film’s relevance over the long term is not only illustrating a steady and increasing drumbeat for accountability since Robert Flaherty’s “Nanook of the North” went from being viewed as a cinematic landmark to an act of exploitation and manipulation, but capturing the complexities of being part of a subjective medium as the filmmakers meet with Arthur Agee of “Hoop Dreams” fame, Bing Liu, who remains uneasy about his decision to make himself a part of “Minding the Gap,” Ahmed Hassan, who risked his life allowing himself to be filmed during the Arab Spring for “The Square,” and Mukunda Angulo of “The Wolfpack” who was less then a month removed from being allowed in public by his family when he literally ran into the director Crystal Moselle.
While they raise a number of issues that wouldn’t occur to anyone who didn’t have to live frozen in time in certain sectors, the film’s most fascinating sections involve Jesse Friedman, who was unavailable to actually participate in “Capturing the Friedmans” as he served time in prison for crimes he was ultimately exonerated for with the aid of the film, but still endures all the negative attention it brought his family and wonders whether it was worth it. There may be no obvious answers, but “Subject” admirably provides a solid foundation for such soul-searching.
“Subject” will screen again at Tribeca at the Cinepolis Chelsea on June 13th at 5:30 pm and June 18th at 3 pm.