By C.J. Hirschfield
“I can’t believe a film about menstruation just won an Oscar,” enthused the director of a 2019 short subject documentary as she accepted her prize.
Welcome to the golden age of the documentary, as people clamor for great nonfiction films.
Previously relegated to second tier cinematic status, there are good reasons for their current success. First, they started making money. “An Inconvenient Truth,” “March of the Penguins,” and “Bowling for Columbine,” were all hugely successful at the box office. And second, access has been greatly expanded beyond the theater. They can be streamed, for free (Kanopy, PBS, archive.org, YouTube), or for a fee (Amazon Prime, Netflix, HBO, Discovery Channel, etc.).
An exceptional new film (yes, a documentary) entitled Subject asks an important question that hasn’t previously been fully explored: what do documentary filmmakers owe, if anything, to the subjects they feature?
“I can’t describe how painful it is to relive my mom’s death over and over again,” says Margie Ratliff, whose family was the focus of The Staircase, a popular 2004 French-produced documentary TV series that questioned whether her father was responsible for the murder of his wife. The Peabody Award-winning work was later expanded and released in 13 episodes by Netflix. And a dramatized version of the true crime story premiered last month on HBO MAX, starring Colin Firth as the suspected killer. That’s 18 years of “celebrity.”
Ratliff was only 16 when the documentary was first made; her father was in favor of the film’s production. “In a way we (her sister and herself) made a choice,” she says, “but we were so young that we really didn’t have a choice. It messed me up so bad.”
With Subject, directors Jennifer Tiexiera and Camilla Hall have created an extremely thoughtful and ambitious film that asks a number of important ethical questions. Is the relationship between the documentarian and subject truthful and honest? Do the subjects deserve compensation? What should the process of consent look like?
Here’s one of the most intriguing questions that is raised: films currently employ intimacy coordinators for sex scenes, appreciating the sensitivity of the interaction. Should a line item in certain documentaries provide for the services of a therapist or trauma counselor to serve the subject?
Getting to know the subjects themselves is fascinating. They range from an Egyptian activist (Square) to a former inner-city high school athletic hopeful (Hoop Dreams), to a teen who was locked away in an apartment for 16 years (The Wolfpack). Their experiences and observations are rich, and illuminating.
Some, like those in Hoop Dreams and The Wolfpack are very happy to have been documentary film subjects while others are haunted by their choice to put their lives under a microscope in Capturing the Friedmans and The Staircase.
Subject also treats us to many short clips of the best nonfiction films since the genre began, and the range of topics is eye-opening. Documentaries open worlds to us—whether underwater, in war zones, or even within families. Some serve as powerful and positive agents of change, while some appeal to our fascination with the bizarre, and true crime.
Yes, documentaries are definitely having their day. The film makes the point that these movies have enormous power, but no guidelines. You don’t need to be a documentary nerd like me to appreciate Subject and its underlying question: “Who gets to tell the story?”
Subject had its world premiere in competition at the 2022 Tribeca Film Festival. The filmmakers are currently seeking distribution.
“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.”
Jennifer Tiexiera is an award-winning documentary director, producer and editor. Most recently, she directed P.S. Burn This Letter Please, a film that begins with the discovery of a box of letters that date back to the early 1950’s and reveal an untold and secret history of New York’s LGBT community. P.S. Burn This Letter Please made its debut at the 2021 Tribeca Film Festival and won the Audience Award for Documentary Feature at the 2020 Outfest Film Festival. In 2019 Jennifer completed 17 Blocks, a documentary directed by Davy Rothbart and spanning over 20 years as it intimately follows the lives of a Washington, DC family deeply affected by gun violence. 17 Blocks premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival where Jennifer was awarded Best Editing in a Documentary Feature Film. In 2017, she both produced and edited the documentaries A Suitable Girl, winner of the Albert Maysles Award at Tribeca, and Waiting for Hassana, an official selection of the Sundance, SXSW and Toronto film festivals. Jennifer’s previous work also includes the documentary Salam Neighbor, the narrative film Road to Paloma and the 2011 SXSW Documentary Grand Jury Prize winner Dragonslayer. Some of her television credits include the documentaries Oprah Builds a Network and Biggie: The Notorious Life of B.I.G., the Emmy-nominated ESPN film The Marinovich Project, and the short film Woinshet, directed by Marisa Tomei and Lisa Leone for PBS. Jennifer is a proud member of Brown Girls Doc Mafia, the Documentary Producers Alliance, the International Documentary Association, LatinX Directors, Women in Film, and Film Fatales. She is currently in production directing her first series for Jigsaw/HBO.
Camilla Hall’s third independent documentary feature film is Subject. She recently completed directing Kingdom of Dreams, a new documentary series about the golden age of luxury fashion produced by Emmy-award winning Misfits Entertainment, the filmmakers behind McQueen and Rising Phoenix, for Sky and HBO Max. Her first documentary feature, Copwatch, a film about police brutality, premiered in Competition at the 2017 Tribeca Festival and sold to Amazon and her second, Garenne, an investigation into a child sexual abuse scandal on a tax-haven island, was broadcast across Europe by BBC Storyville, Arte, NRK, SVT, and DRK. Camilla has also produced films including Sirens (Sundance 2022) and Circus of Books (Tribeca, 2021 and Netflix). She is an executive producer on Black Barbie: A Documentary, directed by Lagueria Davis, and will serve as an executive producer on Rita Baghdadi’s next film. She taught the inaugural documentary filmmaking class at the American Film Institute in Los Angeles. Prior to filmmaking, Camilla was an award-winning journalist at the Financial Times covering Wall Street in New York, and spent five years covering the Middle East prior to that. She now works on films between London and Los Angeles.
Their production company Lady & Bird Films website
Read an interview with directors Jennifer Tiexiera and Camilla Hall on Women and Hollywood.
Read “We Decided To Rewrite All of Our Consent Releases So That They Were More Favorable to Participants”: Jennifer Tiexiera and Camilla Hall on their Tribeca-premiering doc Subject in Filmmaker Magazine.
All photos courtesy of Lady & Bird Films.
C.J. Hirschfield retired after 17 years as Executive Director of Children’s Fairyland, where she was charged with the overall operation of the nation’s first storybook theme park. Prior to that, she served as an executive in the cable television industry where she produced two series, ran San Francisco’s public access channel and advocated on behalf of the industry. A former writer for Film Month, she also penned a weekly column for the Piedmont Post for 13 years and now writes features and reviews for EatDrinkFilms and Berkeleyside/Oaklandside. C.J. holds a degree in Film and Broadcasting from Stanford University.
Hirschfield currently serves on the programming team for the Appreciating Diversity Film series showing free documentaries in Oakland and Piedmont, as well as on the advisory board of Youth Beat, a youth media training program that provides low-income Oakland students with the tools and opportunities they need to thrive in today’s workforce.
C.J. says, “A good documentary takes us places we never could never have imagined, and changes the way we see the world.”