“Subject” – Noun and verb [MOVIE REVIEWS]
Documentaries have been flourishing of late and the personal stories told by many of them are a window into the private lives of their subjects. A thoughtful filmmaker often tries to tell multiple sides of complicated stories and the best succeed. But what happens when the spotlight is dimmed and the storytellers go home? What happens to the subjects and their families? How often are they happy with the end result? Were their stories told accurately from their standpoint, which may not have been what the filmmaker was interested in telling. If there was an agenda, whose agenda was it?
Directors Jennifer Tiexiera and Camilla Hall set out on a journey to explore the aftermath—what happens when the cameras are gone but the subjects remain. Interviews with famous documentarians like Davis Guggenheim (“An Inconvenient Truth,” “Waiting for Superman”), Kirsten Johnson (“Dick Johnson is Dead”), Bing Liu (“Minding the Gap”) and Sam Pollard (“Eyes on the Prize,” “MLK/FBI”) help fill in some of those blanks. Sonya Childress, an impact advisor, is there to explain the before and after effects of that scrutiny.
The acclaimed documentaries explored are “Hoop Dreams,” “The Staircase,” “The Wolfpack,” “Capturing the Friedmans” and “The Square” as seen through the eyes of some of the protagonists.
“Hoop Dreams” (1994) was a film that really put documentaries on the must-see list. Tracking the lives of two adolescent basketball “stars,” the film follows William Gates and Arthur Agee from the Chicago projects as their trajectory through high school is navigated. It was an upbeat story and captured the hopes and dreams of these two young men.
“The Staircase,” (2004) was a non-fiction docu-series that asked the question “did he do it” about Michael Peterson and his guilt or innocence in the death of his wife, found dead on the stairs leading to the basement.
“The Wolfpack,” (2015) detailed the lives of seven children and their mother who were kept virtual prisoners in their lower east side New York apartment by Oscar, the patriarch, who carried the only key. Homeschooled by their mother with only themselves and the television for company, they lived through the movies they watched. When, one fateful day, one of the boys escaped to the outside to have a look around, the floodgates opened and a documentary subject was born.
“The Square” (2013) was the award-winning documentary about the uprising that became the “Arab Spring.” It followed some of the movement’s young leaders who participated in the revolution and were, in the end, punished when the old regime reemerged. Ahmed Hassan, one of the revolutionaries who filmed the events, is profiled by Tiexiera and Hall.
“Capturing the Friedmans” (2003) was the particularly sad tale of a young man, Jesse Friedman, who was caught in a web of child molestation instigated by his father. Father and son pleaded guilty, the father because he was, the son allegedly because he was scared of the consequences if he went to trial. There was a cinema verité aspect to the film because it included home movie footage shot by one of Jesse’s brothers.
More in depth than just “where are they now,” the filmmakers try to dig into the long-term effects of living a part of your life in front of an audience. In all of the original films, it was a documentarian creating a reality with the person whose story they were telling. These films offer a window into the world of real people and their actual lives but, as Little Edie Bouvier, subject of “Grey Gardens,” posited, how do you draw the line between the past and the present? This is what Tiexiera and Hall have attempted to do by revisiting the protagonists of those five documentaries.
Davis Guggenheim says that the goal is always to keep the relationship between documentarian and subject truthful and honest. You owe the subject and the audience the truth. Unanswered is “whose truth is it?” There will always be people who want their stories told and there will always be people who want to tell them. As Guggenheim says, “Who gets to tell the story or how we tell the story? I have to choose that and there’s no time to consider the ethics.” Carefully consider his statement because therein lies the dilemma. To the filmmaker it’s the story; to the subject it’s their life.
The happy ending follow-up was with Arthur Agee of “Hoop Dreams.” He always tried for the brass ring, coming close but never winning. Nevertheless, he recognized that he had something to share and is continuing to give back to his community. He and the others profiled in “Hoop Dreams” were the recipients of largesse on the part of the directing team. Told initially that there would be no money for the participants because documentaries never made money, the film ended up being a huge commercial success. Steve James, director and producer, distributed some of the profits with the leads, William Gates and Arthur Agee, and others who were in the film. As Agee said, the money he received helped change lives.
The follow-up to “The Staircase” is both positive and negative. Positive because the documentary opened up an avenue for appeal and eventual exoneration; negative because the daughters of Micahel Peterson have been forced to relive the most painful episode in their lives repeatedly, first at the trial, then on the 2004 docuseries, again at the retrial and soon to come, the Netflix docu-drama series. They are never able to bury their pain, just feel it again and again.
Ahmed Hassan of “The Square” continues to film clandestinely. When the revolution failed, he was stuck in Egypt, doing his best not to attract the regime’s attention. Follow-up footage is grainy and terrifying. Being nominated for the Academy Award for Best International Film in 2014 did little to help his prospects for freedom. The film itself was hopeful, a hope that didn’t last and continues to have profound effects on Hassan.
The view into the present windows of all of the protagonists is rather mixed. Jesse Friedman, like many of the others, has been unable to draw that line between past and present because the past looms so large. There are more questions than answers in “Subject” because sometimes the past continues to overwhelm the present, overriding any normalcy for the future. More importantly, under the circumstances, what is normal for most of these subjects? Agee found his way through, as did some of the wolfpack. But what of the others? The searing heat of the aftermath melts away the structure needed to go forward.
These are some of the questions the audience must ask. But more importantly, what about the filmmakers? Do they have an obligation to their subjects after the documentary is in the can? The filmmaker controls the narrative, finding the point of view most interesting to them. But what happens when they go home? The story isn’t over, just the movie.
Opening November 3 at the Laemmle Glendale.