Subjects as Collaborators

by Will Rogers


“Subject” is a documentary-related word with which I consistently feel uncomfortable, especially when it refers to a person. In a documentary Q&A I might hear someone ask, “What effect does this film have on its subjects?” and it sounds like the people in the story have been tested for a scientific study. Yuck. Is that what they signed up for?

But the word ‘subject,’ when I think about it, actually denotes a person with a role to play. It’s the object that’s acted upon - the subject, grammatically speaking, is an actor.

Many of my favorite documentaries are the ones in which producers stay out of the way and let the true subjects do their thing. Radio Diaries does this well, and uses a unique formula for doing it. Check out Weasel’s Diary: Deported. It’s the story of a man who was deported to El Salvador, even though he only barely remembers ever having lived there as a child.

Weasel’s voice guides us through his own story. He takes us to where he first arrived in El Salvador, after being deported, and he lets us listen as he tastes one of the only things that brings him back to his childhood days in the country (he emigrated at the age of 5).

To me, what happens behind-the-scenes at Radio Diaries is at least as important as what you hear in the stories. Experienced producers hand equipment to amateur producers to document an interesting piece of their own lives. Radio Diaries oversees the production, while the diarist gives the piece its voice.

In a sense, Radio Diaries just provides tech support for people to tell their own stories. This creates a different kind of story. Rather than having the interview-type sound that many audio documentaries have, these stories truly sound like diaries. There’s no journalist holding a microphone for Weazel during the story, and you can hear that in his voice. He’s speaking directly into the equipment, directly to the listener.

Radio Diaries provides the stage, and Weazel does all of the acting. By holding the microphone himself, this “documentary subject” is not at all like a test subject; instead, he’s more like the subject of a sentence. What’s more, he’s a co-author.

Let Weasel take you to El Salvador. When you get back, tell Radio Diaries thanks for paying for your trip.

Weasel’s Diary: Deported
Produced with Radio Diaries in 1999
25 minutes
(Suggested by Anayansi Diaz-Cortes)


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