Mukunda Angulo, participant of The Wolfpack; photo by Zachary Shields
December 4th 2023

Documentaries have been engaging with their own materiality and subjectivity since the silent era, but it took the surge of mainstream acceptance for nonfiction film engendered by the 2010s streaming bubble for the documentary form to turn its lens inward and investigate its own practices the way it might a murder mystery. Ironically enough, that bubble burst before Jennifer Tiexiera and Camilla Hall’s Subject (2022) could reap in its rewards, having languished in distribution limbo since its premiere at Tribeca last year. Nevertheless, it’s the documentary that finally ate its own tail, checking in with a handful of subjects (or are they “characters”? or “participants”?) who will be recognizable to many nonfiction film fans, to see how their lives were impacted by the movies they made possible.

These profiles represent some significant flashpoints in the growing place of nonfiction in the cinematic landscape. Among them are Arthur Agee from Hoop Dreams (1994), a film credited with helping documentaries cross over with mainstream audiences. Mukunda Angulo from The Wolfpack (2015) and Ahmed Hassan from The Square (2013) represent the era of major streamer licensing deals that briefly made it seem that “independent documentarian” could be a sustainable career choice (both were acquired by Netflix for undisclosed amounts). And then there’s Margie Ratliff, whose father, Michael Peterson (also briefly featured), was the focus of The Staircase (2003), a representation of the IP-driven, reboot-crazy contemporary streaming paradigm that has brought documentary to the corporate, algorithm-driven marketplace in which it is largely traded today.

The parade of prominent case studies appears a little facile at first, jumping from one participant to the next just as we’ve begun to settle in. But as the film accumulates perspectives, it offers a richness through the diversity of experiences expressed by each of the subjects. Tiexiera and Hall move their examination beyond the nature of subjecthood to broader questions of documentary ethics (though, glaringly, the film remains silent about its own economic and editorial relationships with its subjects, credited here as co-producers). None of the questions raised will be new to those with an abiding interest in non-fiction cinema, but Subject offers a worthy primer to those unfamiliar with these issues, and its resistance to simple answers allows audiences to navigate and consider their own stances on the varied material and philosophical concerns with which every documentarian has had to wrestle.

Subject screens this Saturday afternoon, December 9, at the Roxie Theater.