‘Subject’ Review: A Question of Ethics

by The Technical Blogs

Many of the most compelling documentaries of the past several years, from Nathan Fielder’s HBO mini-series “The Rehearsal” to Kirsten Johnson’s self-reflexive feature “Cameraperson,” actively engage with the ethics of documentary filmmaking, posing difficult questions about participation, consent and the responsibility of the artist to the subjects of their art. These projects differ from “Subject,” Jennifer Tiexiera and Camilla Hall’s film about documentary ethics, in that their questions are posed by the filmmaking itself, threaded artfully into the documentary form. “Subject” just speaks the questions out loud, turning them into reductive fodder for talking heads.

Tiexiera and Hall have assembled a kind of “Avengers” of nonfiction cinema here, as the participants in several high-profile docs reflect on the process of having had their lives laid bare on film. Their experiences range from a kind of wistful pride (Arthur Agee, of “Hoop Dreams,” looks back on the memory fondly) to clearly painful disillusionment (Margaret Ratliff, of “The Staircase,” makes a persuasive case that the movie practically ruined her life), and their testimony usually underscores a broader dilemma around the principles of storytelling and the nature of truth. Producers and critics are also on hand to expound on these topics in a cursory, surface-level way.

“Subject” is at its clearest when interrogating the material conditions of documentary filmmaking, as during a segment about whether the subjects of nonfiction films have the right to be paid for their participation; it feels slipperier when glossing issues of diversity and representation, using buzzy phrases like “decolonize documentaries” in place of intellectual heavy lifting. And at no point do Tiexiera or Hall deal with their own complicity in any of this: They are, after all, making a documentary, and we get no sense of how they might answer the questions they pose to other documentarians. Perhaps we need another documentary to explore the making of this one.

Not rated. Running time: 1 hour 37 minutes. In theaters.

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