What ever happened to the boys — now, men — from Hoop Dreams? Where did Little Edie, now deceased, end up after Grey Gardens? Are any of those old guys from Brother’s Keeper still kicking?

If you have ever found yourself asking any of these, or similar, questions, then I’m here to help. I want to begin a series called Documentary Update: What Happened to the Subject?, in which I track down the real life “characters” who have “starred” in some of our our favorite non-fiction films. I imagine, most of the time, that these people will have benefited from allowing a documentarian access to their lives. But I also bet some were not so happy with the results of being in a film. I am open to both discoveries.

We all know that, for audiences, documentaries can be so edifying. They can make us feel closer to faraway people in desperate situations. They can drive us to act. Heck, they may just be able to help save the world — just look at how An Inconvenient Truth helped revolutionize environmental awareness.

Al Gore in An Inconvenient Truth

But what about those subjects? We could start with an already famous subject: Al Gore. Our former vice president was already well known for his environmental scholarship and activism, but Davis Guggenheim‘s An Inconvenient Truth pushed Gore to new heights. Truth was one of the highest earning docs of all time, as well as the Oscar winner for best documentary in 2006, and the film spread Gore’s gospel; I’d say it permanently put his face on our generation’s environmental movement. And then, of course, Gore won the Nobel Peace Prize the next year. Was there cause and effect at play there, between the film and the award? I’d venture to think so.

An Inconvenient Truth led to some big changes in Al Gore’s life. But even more than that: documentaries can also save subjects’ lives. Of course, every doc fan knows that one of the most dramatic examples of this is The Thin Blue Line, which literally got a man exonerated from a life sentence in prison.

Poster for The Thin Blue Line

When filmmaker Errol Morris directed his attention to Randall Dale Adams, who had been convicted of killing a police officer, he found inconsistencies in the prosecution’s case that ultimately got Adams out of jail. It’s interesting to note that Adams ended up in a legal battle with Morris, after apparently giving him exclusive rights to his life story. They settled out of court.

There’s a whole world of people who’ve been featured in docs, and I want to know what’s become of them. So, if you have a favorite documentary subject that you are interested in, leave me a comment, and I’ll endeavor to track your subject down. If you yourself have been in a doc, leave me a comment as well, and I’ll get in touch with you.

My mind is already running with possibilities. Some subjects will be easy to find. (Newspapers give regular updates on the Hoop Dreams men; the brothers from Brother’s Keeper are all indeed dead, but what happened to them in the interim?) But I’m wondering what happened to a variety of Michael Moore interviewees, that funny kid from Spellbound, Philippe Petit (from Man on Wire), and on and on…

Look for entries in the Documentary Update: What Happened to the Subject? series in the coming months right here on the POV Blog.

Published by

Tom Roston
Tom Roston is a guest columnist for POV's documentary blog. He is a former Premiere magazine senior editor, who graduated from Brown University and started his career in journalism at The Nation and then Vanity Fair. Tom's freelance work has appeared in The New York Times, The Guardian, The Los Angeles Times, The Hollywood Reporter and other publications. He has written several Kindle Singles, including the bestselling Kindle Singles Interview: Ken Burns. Tom's current list of favorite documentaries are: 1. Koyanisqaatsi by Godfrey Reggio; 2. Hoop Dreams by Steve James; 3.Stories We Tell by Sarah Polley; 4.Crumb by Terry Zwigoff; 5. Montage of Heck by Brett Morgen