My Family's Story Is Proof That Documentaries Need Ethical Standards

Subject is now playing in New York, Los Angeles, and Chicago

On a recent early morning flight to Atlanta, I sat in the middle seat next to a jovial, middle-aged Michiganian. As both of us were in a chatty mood, we struck up a discussion about movies we wanted to watch on our plane ride. The topic of documentaries quickly came up, as my newfound pal said she absolutely adored documentaries. At this point, the conversation had the potential to cross into the danger zone. Even though I am a documentary filmmaker and run a doc-focused nonprofit, the stakes are still high for me when a conversation veers in that direction.

“I love true-crime documentaries the most!” she says. “Especially The Staircase. It’s the one about that man who thought he got away with killing his wife by saying she fell down the stairs.” She smirks. “And he did it to another woman too.”

She looks to me for affirmation. I am stunned. Clearly, she does not recognize me from the documentary—the daughter of the man she’s just inaccurately described. Panicked, I scan my brain for how to respond.

What my newfound pal failed to realize in the moment was that people featured in documentaries are real people with experiences that can impact them far into the future, even after the cameras are turned off and the documentary has been distributed out into the world. It can take a lot of time, bravery, self-care, and support for people to recover from the events covered by a documentary, or in some cases, from the experience of being in the documentary itself.

My own transformation from a fearful young woman to a confident filmmaker with agency over my own story has taken 20 years, and is ongoing. It took time to realize that I was a traumatized victim of the true-crime genre, not from a specific perpetrator, but from the documentary medium itself. When looking deeper into true-crime documentaries, podcasts, and based-on-true-life fictional stories, a whole host of ethical questions arise. How can there truly be consent from participants of true-crime stories when the stakes are so high, and they are often under extreme duress? How can there be care for the mental health of everyone involved, for both participants and filmmakers? What trauma will be left lingering for generations to come? Who profits from true-crime stories, and how is that profit divided?

How could I even begin to answer all of these questions, just starting out at 22 years old, fresh from my mom’s death and my dad’s conviction of her murder? The original eight episodes of Jean-Xavier de Lestrade’s documentary The Staircase were floating around somewhere on pay TV, and I was battling severe PTSD. Looking back, I imagine I would have responded to my friend on the plane straight from pure trauma. “Oh, I don’t know,” I might have said, before trailing off, quietly crying and shaking, and then running to the airplane bathroom to sob once we reached cruising altitude.

Fast forward eight years, with my dad being released from prison three days after I turned 30, and two new episodes of de Lestrade’s The Staircase added to the series, I would have had more confidence in my response. “I think you have it all wrong!” And then I would promptly and angrily have corrected everything she had presented as true. Our conversation would stop in its tracks.

Add seven more years, and I would luckily have been through decades of EMDR trauma therapy, which had helped soften the blow of the new evolution of The Staircase. Just before my 37th birthday, de Lestrade sold the ten-episode documentary (with three of the episodes newly added) to Netflix. The Staircase was streaming in over 200 countries, and there were talks of an HBO Max dramatized version with high-profile actors. My family was furious at how our story had been commoditized and sold.

By this time, I had been approached by many strangers, some who even followed me around a friend’s wedding, begging me to tell them how they knew me, but couldn’t quite place from where. I brought my deep sadness, anger, and fear from these experiences into my therapy sessions, and I came up with the patent answer: “That documentary is about my family, and it’s a very sad story that I don’t want to talk about.” The goal was to set up a polite boundary and walk away, which is hard to do on a long-haul flight.

But now, having toured the globe for just under two years with our new documentary Subject (produced in association with TIME Studios), which explores the life-altering experience of sharing one’s life on screen and unpacks the vital issues around the ethics and responsibility inherent in documentary filmmaking, I had the courage to say: “Well my film explores the ethics around that film. Can you imagine getting consent from his poor children to be in the movie? They were so young.”

To which my in-flight pal responded: “Oh yes, how terrible. I hadn’t thought about that. When can I see your movie?” Her demeanor shifted from a true-crime aficionado with the glow of murder in her eyes to an empathetic mother, still not realizing she was sitting next to one of those poor children.

The ethical quandaries surrounding documentaries led me to Camilla Hall and Jennifer Tiexiera, the co-directors of our film Subject. They too were questioning where the documentary industry was headed and how each story’s participants were being treated. We met for the first time five days before Netflix released The Staircase, and out of curiosity and a drive to find a better way, we began filming Subject. Knowing we wanted to hear about experiences from varying types of films, we reached out to the participants of some of our favorite documentaries: Hoop Dreams, The Square, Capturing the Friedmans, and The Wolfpack.

Camilla and Jennifer gave us the space to safely take a lens into our past; to bring to light necessary changes in the way we make, fund, distribute, and consume documentaries. We explored the idea of conscious consumption, turning the focus onto the audiences of these stories. Many of us are beginning to be conscious about where our clothes and our food come from, so perhaps we can also be mindful of the digital content we consume. In Q&As for Subject screenings, we are constantly asked: What is all the consumption of true-crime doing to us? Do we as an audience consider how much care was taken with the people in these films?

It was these questions that helped form the Documentary Participants Empowerment Alliance (DPEA), an organization focused on bringing vital resources—such as legal, mental health, and advocacy—to documentary participants, the nonprofit’s aim is to create a world where a DPEA stamp on a film means the audience can trust that the film’s participants were treated ethically and with care. So, when my new Michiganian pal watches documentaries in the future, she will be informed by our film, Subject, and guided by a DPEA stamp in the ending credits—and will understand that people in documentaries are real people who are deserving of respect and care.

Correction, Nov. 3

The original version of this story misstated the resolution of Ratliff's father's case. He entered an Alford plea for manslaughter; he was not exonerated.

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