In Cinemas

Subject review – surface-level probing of documentary movie ethics

This film admirably explores documentary filmmaking as a form of exploitation, but it can't quite do justice to a fascinating premise

When a documentary ends, it's true that most of us do not give deep thought or consideration to the after-lives of those featured. If we do, it's usually a short-lived affair – a quick Google search or Wikipedia scroll to check in with what happened after the cameras stopped rolling. So here is Subject, the new film from Camilla Hall and Jennifer Tiexiera, which sets out to ask ethical questions about what it means to be a documentary filmmaker, and how the ways in which documentaries are produced affect the people at the very centre of them.

Well, that's the theory, anyway. In actuality, Subject is more of a greatest hits package, a “where are they now?” compendium for subjects of some of the most famous documentaries of the last few decades, with a few ethical questions – should subjects be paid, for example? – thrown in (and explored via talking heads) as to convince us this film is not in itself exploitive.

We catch up with a whole host of famous faces from shows and films such as The Staircase, Capturing the Friedmans, The Wolf Pack, and Hoop Dreams, who recount their experiences under the eye of the camera – and the extent to which their lives have been transformed since (there are a few positive notes, but most subjects appear to have been negatively affected by the exposure). While we certainly empathise with those featured, it's a fairly surface-level and predictable probing, while a talking head with Dick Johnson Is Dead documentarian Kirsten Johnson has you wondering about the novel ways in which she might have approached the same project.

The strangest note lies in the fact the film was co-produced by many of its subjects. For a film about the ethics – and candidness – of documentary filmmaking, it’s an odd, and potentially ruinous, detail to leave out. And where the filmmakers might have taken a more reflective approach to their own picture, they opt instead for a linear, subject-by-subject format. But where is the scrutiny of the self that would have pushed this from mildly interesting into something more knowing and experimental?

If there is a properly intriguing avenue here, it's the question of why: why would anyone choose to appear in a documentary in the first place? One subject likens the decision to “an apple in the garden of Eden.” But to give yourself over to the camera, in many ways, is to give yourself over for eternity. In the moment, we tend not to think about the lifespan of a documentary. But a great one will stick around, a permanent source of fascination. Subject won't join that particular pantheon – but it’s an interesting, if all too simple, conversation-starter.

Subject is released in UK cinemas on 3 March.

Where to watch

More Reviews...

The Five Devils review – haunting sapphic drama of secrets and silences

Writer-director Léa Mysius seamlessly blends the natural and the supernatural in this tragic love story starring Adèle Exarchopoulos

The Cow Who Sang a Song Into the Future review – magical realist fable climbs to a superb peak

Though it takes a while to find the right groove, this debut from Chilean director Francisca Alegrí locates some spectacular images

The Beasts review – tense, terrifying drama of xenophobia in the Spanish countryside

A French couple clash violently with the locals in this fascinating, though slightly sagging, new film from director Rodrigo Sorogoyen

Shazam! Fury of the Gods review – DC sequel makes an uncompelling case for its own existence

Though there are a few nice ideas, this follow-up to the surprisingly good 2019 original is bogged down by the genre's worst instincts


Repertory Rundown: What to Watch in London This Week, From Fellini to Fritz Lang

From classics to cult favourites, our team highlight some of the best one-off screenings and re-releases showing this week in the capital

Best of the Fest: 12 Essential Films From Berlin 2023

We've gathered up our most glowing reviews from this year's festival, from dynamic documentaries to dizzying debuts

A Woman Talking: Trusting the Process in the Work of Sarah Polley

To coincide with the release of Women Talking, Anna McKibbin explores the ethos behind the films of the acclaimed director

Every M. Night Shyamalan Film, Ranked

Overrated hack or underrated auteur? Fedor Tot explores the twisty filmmaker's output to mark the release of Knock at the Cabin