If you’ve seen the sensational true crime documentary series The Staircase, you’ll know the story. In 2001, after Kathleen Peterson was found dead at the bottom of the stairs at her home in North Carolina, police suspicion turned to her novelist husband Michael Peterson. When he allowed a documentary team to film what happened next, Peterson said it was because he was worried about getting a fair trial. His adopted daughter, Margaret Ratliff, 20 at the time, grief-stricken and terrified that her dad could be facing the death penalty, agreed to be part of the film. The loss of her privacy in the years since has been devastating, she admits now. “I can’t tell you how painful it is, reliving my mum’s death over and over again.”
This super-thoughtful and sensitive documentary also interviews the “stars” of other well-known documentaries. Arthur Agee was a 14-year-old basketball prodigy from a tough neighbourhood in Chicago when film-makers arrived to shoot Hoop Dreams. Jesse Friedman spent 13 years in jail after he and his father Arnold pleaded guilty in 1998 to sexually abusing children – a conviction put into doubt by the 2003 film Capturing the Friedmans. Mukunda Angulo was raised in a New York apartment isolated from the world by his controlling dad, as detailed in The Wolfpack.
Ratliff never received a penny for her involvement in The Staircase, and in Subject, industry experts argue for and against paying participants. I found myself agreeing that it’s unfair for a subject to be the only one not making money from their own story. A producer of Hoop Dreams explains that when the film became a surprise box office hit, they went back to Chicago and gave everyone with a speaking role a cut of the profits. For Arthur Agee, that money has been life-changing – around $500,000 to date.
The question of who gets to tell stories is discussed (spoiler: mostly white men, until recently), and for a 97-minute film, Subject squeezes in a lot of ethical biggies. What duty of care do you owe a person if you sweep them up into a movie? Does a film-maker need to consider the mental health of a subject? One expert argues that if film contracts can include intimacy coordinators, why not also counsellors? Ratliff is only too aware of the toll that being in a hit documentary can take: “It messed up me and my sister so bad.”
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