Review: Subject (2023) – Truth or a Good Story?


Early on in Subject, there is a sequence that tries to decide the true aim of non-fiction and the changing landscape of the genre due to companies such as Netflix and HBO. The question being, is the real aim to tell a story that fits what the filmmaker wants or what is truthful to the subject matter, to its Subject? It is a compelling question that pushes directors Camilla Hall and Jennifer Tiexiera’s feature to mine through the lives of past documentary subjects to find an answer. The problem is there will never be a fixed answer to this question so Subject dilutes itself, exploring multiple different avenues of documentary filmmaking, both the good and the bad. However by doing this Hall and Tiexiera lose any sense of narrative or direction.

Featuring multiple past subjects of prior documentary films such as true crime series The Staircase, Egyptian revolution drama The Square and inner city basketball doc Hoop Dreams, Hall and Tiexiera want to discover if there is an inherent good or bad to the making of documentaries or if it depends on who is making it, what they want to say and who it affects in the long run. To some subjects its a distinctly clear answer. For one of the subjects of The Staircase, Margaret Ratcliff, her life has been completely upended by the release of the 2004 series and its damage has been immeasurable. For others like Arthur Agee, the subject of Hoop Dreams it has completely changed his life, his perspective and his future for the better. For them, its entirely subjective.

Then there are those that land somewhere in the middle, both consumed by their indelible status as documentary subject and enlightened by it. Its in this discussion that Subject feels most vital, as it helps re-evaluate the entire documentary genre and the people that make them. The problem is that Subject frequently steps outside of this discussion to explore completely tangential issues. The debate about whether participants should be paid for their contributions or whether the voices behind the camera should be ‘decolonized’ while interesting and worth exploring in a larger series feels like padding to a discussion not needing it.

Tiexiera and Hall spend so much time avoiding bias they never build an argument or voice that can carry through the picture. While the intention here is to let the participants’ accounts do the heavy lifting, the lack of focus is damaging. This only compounds the cracks in a film that feels overstretched. The talking heads from industry experts only go to gloss over the emotion behind these peoples stories and the underlying, sometimes unforeseen effects it has had. Subject is a muted watch, one that tempers its emotions in favour of a more factual and clinical perspective

The film’s conclusion, an emotional account by Jesse Friedman, the primary subject of Capturing The Friedman’s, a man convicted of a crime he didn’t commit, is an excellent close to the film as he tries to retake control on a life that has been decided by a documentary that is now 18 years old. Its a bold closing sequence and one that almost refocuses the story and reminds us of the real emotional cost but its a little late in a film that has avoided this kind of editorializing at all costs In the end Subject is a debate in need of an argument and unfortunately it never really finds one.



Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s