Being a documentary subject can be a thankless kind of stardom, without much control over how your life story is told. In “Subject,” Jennifer Tiexiera and Camilla Hall went back to five famous documentaries and asked their stars about their experiences: “Hoop Dreams,” “The Staircase,” “Capturing the Friedmans,” “The Square” and “The Wolfpack.”
Rather than a “where are they now” update, Tiexiera and Hall investigate the unexpected personal ramifications and ethical quandaries that arise. Arthur Agee of “Hoop Dreams,” for example, speaks of earning around $500,000 through profit-sharing.
I spoke with the filmmakers about what they learned, and their dauntingly extensive efforts at making “Subject” a full collaboration with their subjects. Below are edited excerpts from the conversation.
Whose documentary experience surprised you most?
JENNIFER TIEXIERA: I would say Margie’s [as the daughter of a man tried for murder, Michael Peterson]. When you watch “The Staircase,” you’re caught up in the story and you’re not thinking about this young girl whose face is now everywhere. She’s truly been defined by that series for the last 20-some years now. Her story has been told and sold over and over and over again.
CAMILLA HALL: I think Margie got a comment saying the acting was better on the HBO show [the true-crime mini-series starring Colin Firth and Toni Collette] than the Netflix show [the documentary series]. I think Ahmed’s journey in “The Square” is also so dramatic. Where Ahmed [Hassan] comes from in Cairo is a very underprivileged neighborhood. And he became the face of the Egyptian revolution!
Were there positive effects to participating in a documentary?
HALL: Susanne [Reisenbichler, the mother of the nearly housebound family in “The Wolfpack”] talks of how letting somebody in from the outside was the first time she fully understood her level of despair. I think she had just been living in this bubble for so long. That intervention had an enormously positive impact on her life and has led to her total independence. Now she’s a domestic abuse support adviser.
Arthur was able to use the “Hoop Dreams” brand and has his own line of merchandise. Ahmed is an Emmy-winning cinematographer as a result of “The Square,” and we were able to get him a visa to move to America because of that award.
How did you get people to open up?
HALL: I think we created a platform where their voice was the most important at the end of the day. They had final say over how they would be presented in “Subject.” They were able to watch the rough cut of the film and give feedback. And there wasn’t much coaxing. They knew exactly what they were doing — it was almost like Margie directed her own scenes.
TIEXIERA: And they’re co-producers, by D.P.A. [Documentary Producers Alliance] standards. When it came to what was very important to them, we adjusted their agreements to reflect that. Jesse [the son in “Capturing the Friedmans” who served 13 years in prison on child sexual abuse charges] wanted to be aware of the distribution: where this is going to go and who’s going to see it.
We did reach out to a few people for “Subject” who weren’t ready to go back into that place but still loved the idea. For example, Carole and Howard from “Tiger King” became supporters of “Subject.” And Mark Borchardt [of “American Movie”] was a great sounding board.
Did you cut anything from “Subject” based on feedback from participants?
TIEXIERA: The biggest hurdle was when Susanne and [one of her sons] Mukunda agreed to be part of “Subject,” and Mukunda’s brothers did not want to be. They had had a different relationship and experience and didn’t want to be on camera. I want to say it was a couple of weeks before our premiere, it came back that they did not want to be part of the archival [material]. So we had to re-cut the entire “Wolfpack” section and keep them out, except for one of the brothers who was OK with it. Legally, sure, we could have kept that. But it’s just not what we were doing.
We also feature 112 films and series [in montages], and people have been able to see it and say, I don’t like where my film is placed. We’ve been able to go back and take it out or move it to a different location.
Would you ever participate in a documentary about your life?
HALL: So, we are considering that in the series that we’re developing at the moment.
TIEXIERA: If you would ask me this last year, I would say absolutely not. But as we develop the series with Time Studios, it’s come up a few times. In the spirit of “Subject,” the series would be a collaboration between the participants [in documentaries], and we would have the time to bring the directors’ voices into it, and then we also reflect on the process while we’re making it. It’s very meta!