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‘Subject’: The ethical jungle of making films about real people

‘Subject’: The ethical jungle of making films about real people
'Subject' by Camilla Hall and Jennifer Tiexiera. Poster of the film. Image: 'Subject', 2022

This documentary about documentaries explores the complexity of having your life filmed and shared with the world.

On the surface, the 2022 documentary film Subject, directed by Jennifer Tiexiera and Camilla Hall, should be mandatory viewing for all current and aspiring documentary filmmakers.

I will certainly make it prescribed viewing for all the documentary courses I teach, as soon as academic licences become available. The last few minutes of the film make it clear, however, that there is another, equally important target audience for this film: anyone who is thinking of agreeing to be filmed. This documentary about documentaries explores the complexity of having your life filmed and shared with the world. It does so by intercutting interviews with filmmakers, subjects of films and film theorists with snippets from high-profile films and behind-the-scenes photos and footage.

The use of the word “subject” to refer to someone in a documentary film is brought up a little over halfway into the film. This word implies that the people in documentary films are subjected to filmmaking, and have little agency in the process.

Daresha Kyi, one of the filmmakers interviewed for the film, points out that the term is outdated. It was taken from anthropology, possibly in an attempt to suggest objectivity. The discourse about documentaries has moved away from notions of, or aspirations to objectivity or journalistic balance. It is now acknowledged that it is an art form that captures a subjective view of the world. And many filmmakers have moved away from using the term “subject” to refer to the people they film.

Sonya Childress lists some of the alternatives in use today, including “collaborators, participants, protagonists”. The first two of these imply an attempt to negate the asymmetrical power relationship involved when a group of people with production resources and skills makes a film about others, which is not relevant to all documentary productions.

“Protagonist” may refer too overtly to fiction film for some. Kyi highlights the obvious: “I’m not going to call a person a subject. A person is a person.”

This makes one wonder why the film is called Subject, a choice that arguably reinforces the use of this contentious, outdated term. But perhaps calling it “Person” wouldn’t have signified its subject matter to the audience as elegantly. Perhaps Subject better hints at the inherent complexities of documentary filmmaking.

As DOP and director Kirsten Johnson points out, filmmakers are “trained to think like a predator. I’m going to get things that no one’s ever gotten before.” Perhaps the documentary filmmaking project is intrinsically extractive, and then Subject is certainly an apt title for this film.

According to film psychotherapist Rebecca Day, “Being a subject can be a form of therapy in itself.” Scholarship on the therapeutic potential of various forms of art, including film, music and writing back this claim up. But that is not always the case.

‘Subject’ by Camilla Hall and Jennifer Tiexiera. Still from the film. Image: ‘Subject’, 2022

‘Subject’ by Camilla Hall and Jennifer Tiexiera. Still from the film. Image: ‘Subject’, 2022

Psychological harm

Sometimes the filmmaking process can traumatise or retraumatise, and even when the process of telling one’s story is therapeutic, having that story shared with the world can cause psychological harm. Assia Boundaoui’s suggestion that “therapy ought to be a line item in the budget for you and your subjects” resonates deeply in this context and is born out by the case studies, including The Square (2013), Capturing the Friedmans (2003), The Wolfpack (2015) and The Staircase (2004).

One of the subjects of The Staircase speaks in detail about the impact on her life and mental health of being in a doc series about her father being accused of her mother’s murder. Her father provides a counter-perspective: he wanted the court case and its impact on his family documented because he thought it would help him prove his innocence.

For her, it meant a lifelong invasion of privacy. For him, it was a grasp at freedom. TIFF programmer and podcast host Thom Powers points out that participation in a documentary film transforms people’s lives in complex ways, but always in some way. Various interviewees, including Gordon Quinn (Kartemquin Films), Caroline Libresco (formerly of Sundance Institute) and impact producer Sonya Childress unpack that complexity: being in a film is a way to have your story told, to be seen, to get important information out, archive events, share an ignored perspective, reveal an injustice, inspire others, bring people together, and to have impact. But most people have no idea how sharing their lives will change their lives.

Subject also problematises the positionality of who is doing the filming. Deresha Kyi believes that “nobody can tell the story like someone who comes from that community. They understand the nuances … [and] complexities”.

Bing Liu, the director of Minding the Gap (2018), poses a question that brings the two topics — who films, and the experiences of those who are being filmed — together, and that I believe all filmmakers should ask themselves continually: “How do the people in the film feel about me telling the story?”

What complicates the issue is power. Differences between filmmaker and filmed, including race, nationality and wealth, imply power imbalances. But so does the mere presence of the camera. Whoever holds the camera holds power over those the camera is aimed at.

Ahmed Hassan, the cinematographer-subject of The Square (2013), felt this in a powerful way. Based on his experience of being persecuted by the Egyptian authorities once the film was released, he says that “a camera is so dangerous. It’s like a weapon …”.

A camera can be used to attack and defend, but sadly it can’t always protect subjects, especially those who are economically or politically vulnerable, from retribution. All the repercussions of sharing one’s story publicly can’t be anticipated, but mitigating the harm involved in the act of filming someone else should be part of every filmmaker’s process.

Assia Boundaoui says it is never simple, but in the end “it’s about: how do we treat people with less power than us when no one is watching”.

Subject release forms protect the filmmaker, production company and distributor. They are not written by subjects or with them in mind. Getting the subject to sign the release is often treated as a formality, a legality, by a filmmaker.

Informed consent, on the other hand, involves an ongoing process of open discussion in which the filmmaker discloses why they are making the film, what their point of view on the subject is, as well as where and by whom the film will be seen. It also involves making sure the person you intend to film understands the implications and consents willingly. It is based on establishing trust and maintaining it throughout production and postproduction. It may even include something that many producers and directors fear, namely giving the subject influence in the cut: power over what is included and how it is framed in the film.

The right to be forgotten

The film raises a powerful argument for the right to be forgotten, for someone else not to own the rights to show and reshow the story of your life. But how that could possibly play out in a world where HBO can make a fiction series in 2022 based on a 2004 Netflix documentary series French filmmakers started filming in 2002 is not clear. And even if it were possible for someone to rescind their consent, for a film to be removed from all platforms and for all celluloid and DVD copies to be destroyed, the internet and social media would make it impossible to remove all traces of the film.

Subject is interview-driven by the nature of its topic, but don’t expect wall-to-wall talking heads. The film is fast-paced and includes select scenes from films, behind-the-scenes footage and stills, and contemporary observational footage of subjects who appeared in the four films used as case studies.

Film extracts are drawn widely, ranging from classics like Grey Gardens (1975), Harlan County (1976) and Hoop Dreams (1994) to box office record breakers like Bowling for Columbine (2002) and March of the Penguins (2005), awards darlings like Free Solo (2018), other films that reflect on the act of filmmaking like Camerawoman (2022) and true-crime documentary series like The Staircase (2004), to name only a few.

It is clearly a US film, that includes predominantly (but not exclusively) US films, case studies and perspectives. It is an excellent new companion to films like Cinema Verite: Defining the Moment (1999) and Pepita Ferrari’s Capturing Reality: The Art of Documentary (2008). Rather than be seen as the definitive”‘doc on docs”, I hope that it inspires filmmakers from other parts of the world — including Africa — to reflect meaningfully on documentary filmmaking practices in their regional and cultural contexts.

The so-called golden age of documentary may be under threat, but regardless of whether they draw millions of clicks on commercial streaming platforms or are used in far-flung communities to facilitate conversations about difficult social issues, documentaries will continue to be made. And they will continue to tell people’s stories. So, we must continue to have conversations about how they are made.

Documentary film is such a complex and ethically challenging way of engaging with the profilmic world, it certainly deserves all the attention we can give it. As Bing Liu says in Subject: it is an “ethical, moral jungle”. DM

Subject screens at the Encounters South African International Film Festival in Cape Town at 8.30pm on Friday, 23 June and in Johannesburg at 6pm on Friday, 30 June.

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