Subject review – piercing documentary about documentaries

This examination of the relationship between nonfiction film-makers and their subjects raises important ethical questions

It’s one of the more heartening cinema trends of the past decade: the rise in popularity of the documentary speaks of a bolstered curiosity among audiences in the lives of those around them. It promises a degree of social and political engagement that fiction film-making can rarely achieve. It’s about real people getting to tell their stories. Except, as Jennifer Tiexiera and Camilla Hall’s piercing film about the subjects of documentaries reveals, it’s not quite as simple as that.

Nonfiction film-making can have unintended and far-reaching consequences for the participants – Ahmed Hassan, subject of the Egyptian revolution doc The Square, now lives in exile. At its worst, it can be predatory, manipulative and morally murky.

Interviewing the subjects of high-profile documentaries, including The Wolfpack, Capturing the Friedmans and Hoop Dreams, the picture interrogates the ethics of documentary film-making. It questions asymmetrical power dynamics, the issue of whether subjects should be paid for their participation and who has the right to tell a story in the first place. It’s thought-provoking stuff, which also explores our own role, as audience members, in the voracious demand for other people’s stories.

Watch a trailer for Subject.


Wendy Ide

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
Subject review – exploitation, trauma and the ethics of documentary-making
The subjects of The Staircase, Hoop Dreams, Capturing the Friedmans and others contribute to this thoughtful film about the duty of care film-makers owe those whose stories they tell

Cath Clarke

28, Feb, 2023 @9:00 AM

Article image
Descendant review – fascinating documentary about a lost slave ship
The families of freed slaves in Alabama and marine archaeologists work together to unearth lost history

Wendy Ide

23, Oct, 2022 @12:00 PM

Article image
The 10 best sports documentaries
Ahead of Ronaldo, here is our pick of the most gripping guts’n’glory flicks

Tom Lamont

06, Nov, 2015 @12:00 PM

Article image
Gleason review – candid documentary
Clay Tweel’s film about former American football player Steve Gleason, who has motor neurone disease, is undeniably powerful

Wendy Ide

19, Mar, 2017 @8:00 AM

Article image
Hello, Bookstore review – life-affirming documentary about a US literary haven
A venerable Massachusetts bookshop and its hippy owner struggle through the pandemic in AB Zax’s engagingly quirky portrait

Wendy Ide

02, Jul, 2023 @11:00 AM

Article image
Shabu review – charming documentary follows a Dutch teenager learning about life
A young aspiring Rotterdam rapper having a bad summer is the charismatic subject of Shamira Raphaëla’s affecting film

Wendy Ide

09, Jul, 2023 @11:30 AM

Article image
Time review – poetic documentary about a family torn apart by prison
Garrett Bradley uses home movies and a lyrical style to tell the story of watching a loved one locked away

Mark Kermode Observer film critic

18, Oct, 2020 @7:00 AM

Article image
Trophy review – conflicted hunting documentary
An argument in favour of legalising big game hunting is undercut by the film’s own footage

Simran Hans

19, Nov, 2017 @8:00 AM

Article image
Nothing Lasts Forever review – sparkling documentary about the diamond business
Jason Kohn’s thoroughly entertaining film explodes the myth and mystique around diamonds and the De Beers cartel

Wendy Ide

12, Feb, 2023 @12:00 PM

Article image
Nascondino (Hide and Seek) review – remarkable documentary about a Neapolitan street kid
For four years, Victoria Fiore follows bright, personable Entoni, at the mercy of Italy’s new law concerning children from organised crime families

Wendy Ide

22, Jan, 2023 @11:30 AM