The Lives of Others: what is the real-life toll of our fascination with documentaries?

By Ryan Finnigan, Senior Programmer

The 21st Century has been dubbed the ‘Golden Age of Documentary’ as our collective obsession with the form has rapidly grown. Growing critical and commercial success in the early 2000s saw documentaries taking cinemas by storm for the first time. Huge successes including Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11, Al Gore climate-warning An Inconvenient Truth, and the Morgan Freeman-narrated March of the Penguins paved the way for documentary to capture a wider cinemagoing audience.

The popularity of documentary film and television has only increased over the last two decades with digital technology and streaming platforms making it easier to both produce and distribute the films, with an increasing demand for content across competing sites driving the demand for docs. Regular viewing increased at home with the rise of reality, true crime and popular personalities like Louis Theroux only increasing our thirst for non-fiction narratives.

With captive audiences during the COVID-19 pandemic of 2020, the documentary phenomenon hit new heights as Joe Exotic and Tiger King was watched by 64 million households globally in its first month alone. It was the perfect storm; an audience fully primed to peer into the lives of others, as their own ground to a halt. Tiger King followed a growing societal trend of watching and judging others - from Big Brother to Instagram, YouTube to social media true crime sleuths – but at what cost?

Our engagement with the real-life experience of documentary ‘subjects’ can conveniently end when the titles roll. For participants, it can often define the rest of their lives. A new film, Subject, explores the wider ethical implications associated with documentary filmmaking and focuses on a handful of case studies of successful films including Hoop Dreams, The Wolfpack, Capturing the Friedmans, and The Staircase.

On Tuesday 21 February, Showroom Cinema will welcome the directors of Subject (Camilla Hall and Jennifer Tiexiera) for a very special screening of the film, which will be followed by a Q&A. Also present for the discussion will be Margaret Ratliff, whose family were the subject of The Staircase, a documentary about the death of her mother and the resulting murder trial.

Since 2004, The Staircase has been fuel for idle speculation, gossip, accusations, and even a recent adaptation on Sky with Colin Firth. For Ratliff, it is a tragic sliver of time in the life of her family that she is forced to relive over and over.

Tickets for Subject and the following Q&A are on sale now.


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