We all construct narratives about our lives, drafting and redrafting them with friends, family and ourselves. But what if they were packaged by a documentarian and broadcast on Netflix, a streaming platform with 230 million subscribers across 190 countries? How would it affect you, and would anyone care? This is the subject of Subject, a documentary about documentaries, and it is a process that Margie Ratliff knows all too well.

Ratliff was in her early twenties when she appeared in The Staircase, a documentary series about the trial of her father Michael Peterson, who was charged, convicted, and then released for the murder of his wife, Kathleen. In the interest of ‘transparency’, Peterson invited cameras into the trial and into Ratliff’s life, exposing her confusion and anguish for all to see. “I can’t tell you how painful it is,” says Ratliff, now in her 40s, “…reliving my mum’s death over and over again.”

The Staircase received a tremendous boost in 2018 when Netflix released an extended cut with the tagline, “Did he do it?” In Subject, Ratliff drives to a nearby billboard displaying this question, which is written in blood-red lettering and set against her father’s dark, shadowy face. The moment casts a weird, metafictional aura over the true crime craze in which so many of us are complicit.

Margie Ratcliff is one of numerous ‘subjects’ in this documentary, and most of them are ambivalent about what it means to be one. Ratcliff may criticise the global attention on her suffering, but she also counts the filmmakers as friends and credits them with listening to her family. Also positive is Jesse Friedman, the convicted sex offender of “Capturing the Friedmans”, which he describes as the “best thing that ever happened to me” while noting the pernicious emotional fallout.

The most agreeable figure is Arthur Agee, subject of the renowned 1993 documentary Hoop Dreams. Agee didn’t make it to the NBA, but he sees his role in the film as an inspiration to kids across America. He also received some $500,000 from the project, which raises one of the documentary’s main ethical questions – should subjects be remunerated? Upfront payments could prevent many documentaries from getting made, so I think Hoop Dreams is the example to follow: if your documentary is a rare profit-maker, compensate those who helped make it happen.

Subject explores this quandary and several others, namely the extent of filmmakers’ bias and the commitment to managing their subjects’ mental health. It is all part of how directors Camilla Hall and Jennifer Tiexiera take a step back from the medium of documentary film, chart its ascendency to mainstream success, and comment on the relationships between filmmakers, subjects, and the viewing masses.