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Actors move on from characters. Documentary subjects rarely can

I spent decades dodging the true-crime documentary that showcased my family’s trauma. Then, just as Netflix was set to revive it, came my chance to show what happens after the credits roll. 

March 20 2023, 15.56pm

In 2001, Margie Ratliff’s stepmother was found dead at the bottom of a staircase in their home. Her father, the author Michael Peterson, became the prime suspect in a first-degree murder case that captivated the world’s media. Their family became the subject of a documentary called The Staircase, which has since been turned into a Netflix series. She recently shared her insights in a new documentary, Subject, that explores the lives of people who have been subjects in documentaries. 

When I first sat down to coffee with documentary filmmaker Camilla Hall, I had a feeling that The Staircase might come up. We chatted about the projects Camilla was producing, and I listened, hoping that I could work on one of the shoots. I asked her what she was directing. She told me she had been thinking about how the people in her past documentaries had felt about the whole process. I felt myself tense up. I spent decades dodging conversations about the true-crime documentary that showcased my family’s deep trauma through its cinéma-vérité style. 

Many of my closest friends only vaguely knew the story, having never watched the documentary because it felt too voyeuristic. They knew me, and if I didn’t want to talk about the series, they didn’t want to watch it. But all of this was about to change in just five days. 

A few days prior to my coffee with Camilla, an early morning call woke me up. “The Staircase will be on Netflix! With three new episodes!” said a friend over the phone. My heart sank into my futon mattress. 

Why had I been hiding my life and history for so long, to now have it on display globally?

My family and I already braced ourselves for a third installment of the documentary to air on French TV. There would be a small ripple of overseas press and maybe a new Sundance Channel deal. But the prospect of being in homes in over 200 countries, including the US, I was horrified. How was I going to tell the rest of my family? 

What could we do to protect the lives we had so carefully carved out for ourselves? We spent years receiving hate letters, calls, emails, and social media messages. We appeared on shows like Dateline and American Justice to help our dad, to only be sent into shame spirals that generated more hatred toward our family. 

Although I had been working in the film industry for many years, I somehow managed to skirt around conversations about my family and the documentary. I couldn’t imagine telling a boss or collaborator about my connection to the Sundance channel doc or how my dad’s trial was a Court TV sensation. My family and I had gained nothing financially from the film, and our only goal was to protect and support our dad. 

So when I got the call about Netflix, I rolled over and sobbed. It took me a while that day to get to work, as I called all my family members and walked them through what might happen next, once the series was released. By the end of the day, I had turned sadness, fear, and frustration into anger. Why had I been hiding my life and history for so long, to now have it on display globally? I had a colleague who had always said he would connect me with filmmakers who wanted to talk to me about The Staircase. Up until that point, I had always said “no thank you”. My anger pushed me to call him up. 

My friend connected me with Camilla, and a few days later, we met at a coffee shop in Los Angeles.. It was the same café where an actress had come up to me a couple years prior and said, “Don’t I know you?” Neither of us could figure out how we knew each other. Then, as I walked away, it dawned on me. She had probably just watched it. 

As Camilla told me about her interest in her own past documentary participants’ experiences, I was intrigued. It was a kernel of an idea, but I could tell that she had spent some time thinking it through. I heard myself say: “Well, I could consult for that.” I told her about Netflix and the three new episodes. We both let out a deep, long sigh. What she said next took me down a path I had never imagined. “What are you doing to care for yourself?” 

At this moment my brain split in two: a filmmaker with an MFA in documentary directing and a person hurting from being a doc participant for twenty years. I told her that I had rented a place in Joshua Tree National Park so I could get away from the inevitable LA billboards and go rock climbing. I told her I’d need a few days to talk with my family. But in the meantime, she should get a camera crew ready just in case. 

I talked to each of my family members. They all set a hard boundary; they had no interest being on camera again. But they were all supportive of me, hoping that I could get some agency around our story and perhaps even some catharsis; whatever I needed to do to get through the pain we were all going through. 

A few days later, Camilla and I were chatting about my terms. I wanted to be a producer on the film, which mirrored my family’s wish for me to find my voice through this project. The filmmaker side of my brain knew that filming my trip to Joshua Tree would be helpful to attract other doc participants and investors. But I said firmly that I didn’t want to be in the actual documentary. 

Then The Staircase reached peak viewership on Netflix, making the Top Ten Films lists in the US, UK, and in Ireland. All of a sudden a Waikiki sunset was ruined by a well-meaning woman wanting to discuss my dad’s verdict, a New Years’ Eve ball drop where a man called me a “reality star,” a birthday dinner interrupted, an Uber ride that would just never end. At a wedding, the bride’s cousin would not leave me alone. Where did she know me from? I told her that I was in commercials, Irish Spring soap. She didn’t buy it, so I whispered to her that she must recognize me from my porn career. That sent her scurrying! I said whatever I could to make people leave me alone. It felt horrible. 

How could we have given real, conscious, considerate consent when so much was at stake? 

Luckily the footage we had shot out in Joshua Tree brought some traction to the project, now titled SubjectWe had Jennifer Tiexiera come on board as a co-director and editor, and Jesse Friedman from Capturing the Friedmans was open to talking with us. My family had felt alone, with no one in the world who understood the unique experiences we’d been through. But meeting Jesse and his mum blew that out of the water for me! We all had similar feelings of trauma and frustration with being documentary participants. How could we have given real, conscious, considerate consent when so much was at stake? 

Meeting Arthur, Mukunda, Susanne, Ahmed, who are all participants in Subject, opened new ways to view our experiences as doc participants. I loved how Arthur and William from Hoop Dreams were compensated for their participation, after the film was a surprise box-office hit. Co-directors Jennifer and Camilla, listened to us, and brought on Dr Kameelah Rashad as a participant advocate and executive producer to care for both the participants’ and filmmakers’ mental health. 

The Subject team actively examined the resources that each participant needed in order to feel safe telling their own story. So when an HBO Series was announced, with A-List actors playing my family members as fictional characters, I felt comfortable having my  family’s story become a part of Subject. The film gave us a chance to finally speak out against the HBO series and use our experiences over such a long time with The Staircase documentary to highlight larger ethical questions within the documentary community at large. 

Since Subject’s premiere last June, we’ve opened up conversations about documentary ethics and how participants should be treated on a global level. I’ve had the chance to hear from many other documentary participants; hear where things went right and areas where they could have used more care and assistance. These conversations inspired me to create a non-profit, Documentary Participants Empowerment Alliance (DPEA), to connect documentary participants with necessary resources like mental health, legal, mediation, and advocacy. I can’t change what happened to my family, but I am happy to push forward new ways of caring for documentary participants in the future.