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It’s a golden age for documentaries – but at what price for people whose lives are laid bare? | Camilla Hall

When I watched The Staircase, I was transfixed. The 2004 documentary series – rereleased on Netflix in 2018 – tells the story of US author Michael Peterson, who was charged with the murder of his wife.

I was glued to my laptop, Googling the myriad of popular theories: was she, in fact, killed by an owl? Was the murder weapon a discarded blow poke? I found myself playing detective, captivated by the mind-boggling twists and turns of the documentary.

Then a few months later, out of the blue, I got an email introducing me to Margie Ratliff, Michael Peterson’s daughter, who features in the documentary series and is played by Sophie Turner in a recent HBO dramatisation. A mutual friend had connected us because Margie was hoping to work in the documentary field – maybe I could help?

As a documentary film-maker, I’d been grappling with the ethics of documentary film-making for a while. I’d seen the participants of my own projects struggle with the process of filming and wanted to better understand the complexities of what it meant to be on screen.

I met Margie in a hipster coffee shop in Los Angeles, and tables buzzed around us with people trying to finish their latest fiction scripts, or rushing off to audition for their next acting job. The scene felt surreal for us both. It almost sounds ridiculous to say out loud, but it was only in that moment that I really started to think about Margie and her family as real people.

Margie told me she was preparing for the Netflix rerelease of The Staircase documentary series. In 2004, when it had been shown on the Sundance channel, global streaming companies had not even existed. But this time, her image would be available to millions of people, all over the world, all at once.

The juxtaposition of the desire to help and support her father with the reality that her most personal and traumatic moments would now be available for broad public consumption – in perpetuity – was intense. It was in that moment that our film Subject was born.

Through interviews with the participants of The Staircase, Hoop Dreams, Capturing the Friedmans, The Square and The Wolfpack, Subject explores some of the deepest questions facing our industry at a time when documentary storytelling has shifted from a smaller, public broadcast space, into a much larger corporate enterprise. Some are calling it the shift from a golden age into a corporate age.

While the rise of the streaming platforms has created enormous opportunity for film-makers, the explosion of production companies and competition for funds has increased the risk of cutting ethical corners when it comes to the people at the heart of our stories.

Colin Firth and Toni Collette in HBO’s The Staircase. Photograph: AP

In this new corporate era, personal story has become a commodity that can be packaged and repackaged but what does that mean for the people at the heart of these stories? In the case of Margie, she received no mental health support or financial compensation, yet both the documentary and the drama series were extremely popular. The drama series got the full HBO treatment, with big-name actors such as Colin Firth and Juliette Binoche featured.

When someone’s personal story has been commodified by others, should they not benefit financially in some way? Should fiction shows be allowed to go ahead without the explicit consent of the real people whose stories they are based on? What care should be provided to documentary participants whose trauma has been dissected for our entertainment?

Our film raises a lot of questions for which we don’t have all the answers. There is certainly no one-size-fits-all checklist. Through the experience of those who had been on camera, we wanted to encourage a conversation not just within our own community but with documentary audiences as a whole. With the deep research of academics and experts such as the Documentary Accountability Working Group, the debate around documentary film ethics is now firmly at the forefront of a bigger conversation.

In some ways, my co-director Jennifer Tiexiera and I see Subject as a “Super Size Me” for documentaries; we wanted to peel back a layer of the mystery so that audiences could learn more about the process and better understand what they are consuming. We’ve been lucky enough to tour the UK over the past 12 days sharing the film and one of the phrases that came up was the idea of “conscious consumption”.

We loved this simple idea that audiences can use their own power to decide what they want to watch and try to research and educate themselves about the shows they’re choosing beforehand. This thirst for context will drive our film-making to be stronger and more transparent.

As we grapple with this new era of documentary, there is real momentum to act and find solutions. We’ve seen the Sundance film festival add participant care to its application process, the normalisation of mental health resources for participants and crew, and we’re excited to hear of shifts already afoot at broadcasters and streamers in the US and UK.

While Margie had never originally wanted to be filmed in another documentary, we’re grateful that she decided to speak up about her experiences and allow others to really understand what it means to have your life depicted on screen. Right now, as film-makers and documentary fans, we’re just here to listen.

  • Camilla Hall is a documentary film-maker. She is the co-founder, with Jennifer Tiexiera, of the production company Lady & Bird Films. Subject is in UK cinemas now

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Photo by Xu Haiwei on Unsplash