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Faces of Tribeca Film: Julien Nitzberg

You think your relatives are nuts? Meet The Wild and Wonderful Whites of West Virginia, the reckless stars of this jaw-dropping doc. See it at Tribeca Cinemas and across the country via Tribeca Film On Demand.



You think your relatives are nuts? Wait until you meet the Wild and Wonderful Whites of West Virginia, the familial focus of Julien Nitzberg’s latest documentary. Produced by Johnny Knoxville and the team behind Jackass, the film doesn't disappoint. Neither does this interview with Nitzberg, who holds nothing back about his time spent in Boone County, West Virginia.

 


 
What makes The Wonderful and Wild Whites of West Virginia a Tribeca Must-See?
 

Oh, man, these are fucked-up questions. Someone else should hype my film!

We made this documentary like a peek into a crime family, something like The Sopranos in a way. We treated it like a regular movie instead of a documentary, so it has all the energy of a feature. Too often, people who make docs feel like they have to treat their characters with a boring amount of seriousness. We tried to edit it—with music, etc.—like you would a gangster story, like Goodfellas or something.
 
What’s the craziest thing that happened while making the film?

Everyday something crazy or surprising happened with the Whites, whether it was picking someone up from prison and then watching that person go straight back to wildness, people snorting pills in front us every moment, or riding around while various Whites screamed death threats out the window. They were dealing drugs in front of us. They were pantsing each other constantly, so we saw everyone’s genitals.

And there were death threats?

We had about ten death threats from members of the family during the making of the film. The Gullets [!]—some half-siblings we didn’t interview—were offended they weren’t in the film. One—Jesco’s half-sister, who was in her mid-60s—threatened to come down from Cleveland with her rifle, which was named Josey Wales. (She had held a bar hostage with Josey Wales the year before.) When we eventually filmed in Cleveland, she got my cell phone number, and kept inviting me nicely over for an interview. I said I would try, and then we snuck out of town. I was never sure if it was a trap or not.
 
What are your hopes/fears/wishes regarding Tribeca?

I hope the movie does well. I hope a lot of people walk out disgusted, because it’s not like a regular documentary. It’s not condescending to the subject, but shows the Whites how they really are. Most of the time when you see docs, it seems like the filmmakers actually inhibit people or try to paint rosy pictures. We really captured this wild side of life that no one has ever shown before—a side of America that is a true America, which is an America that both the left and the right would never want you to see. The left would romanticize it, and the right would condemn it. I fear that certain people who watch it just won’t get the Whites, and will look down at them, and I think that would be really sad. This family is one of the last examples of what the original Americans were like—people who came to America to get the fuck away from government and society and live on their own, live how the fuck they want, and do what they want. And because of society encroaching on them, they can’t do what they want because society has trapped them in. 

But don’t they get money from the government? Disability, social security, etc.?

That’s the problem. They want to get left alone, but who’s going to say no to free money? If everyone else is jumping through the turnstiles, why put a token in? (I guess that’s a bad example now—aren’t there MetroCards?) If you’ve grown up with this whole culture of corruption—coal companies that pollute the rivers and live for today—why not? Ideally, others wouldn’t act that way, and the Whites wouldn’t either.

This family used to have to work hard, and they were cool with that. It was backbreaking, hard mountain work, and at the end of the day, they would party. But they didn't have the time to completely self-destruct. Then society built roads in [to these coal-mining communities] to make things better, but the coal companies just stole the coal, and the roads from Cleveland ended up bringing the drugs in. The society there is also corrupted—the doctors are the pharmacists. Much of the population is sedated and on pills, which stops them from getting angry about their fucked-up situation.

The term redneck comes from Boone County. The original rednecks were these wild, striking miners, characterized by a red scarf around their neck. That region used to be known for radical, political actions—as in [John Sayles'] Matewan—extreme, left-wing union actions. That whole movement has been destroyed by corruption and keeping people partying and sedated.

I was surprised that with all the drugs they do in the movie, they don’t seem to do meth. Why is that?

 

Oh, in Boone County, meth is the fancy person’s drug. They had coke once in a while, but for some reason they are not into meth. It’s usually prescription—Oxy, Percocet—they like anything of that group. There’s a big methadone problem too, because there are methadone clinics there. Methadone fucks you up too. So the government pays you to get on Methadone, which gets you off narcotics, but gets you addicted to methadone. That’s a bigger problem than the drugs now.

 

How did you meet the Whites?

 
I lived there for a long time. I met the Whites while I was working at Appalshop, a media collaborative that does docs for PBS on Appalachian issues. I worked on documentaries about coal company corruption, on both politics and cultural issues. One night—this was 18 years ago—a catfight broke out between three women at a concert, and it was broken up by Mamie White. She screamed at me, "Guess what?! I’m on acid—woooooo!!!!" The following week, I ran into her again, and she said, "You’re the filmmaker guys, aren’t you? I'm Mamie, and I’m on acid again—wooooo! I want you to come to my house with a cake with tits and pussy on it, and I want you to meet my brother Jesco." I can’t say no to cake. I ended up producing a documentary about Jesco, called The Dancing Outlaw Jesco White in 1989-90.
 
If you could have dinner with any filmmaker (alive or dead)—who would you want it to be?
 
Buster Keaton or Luis Buñuel.
 
What piece of art (film/book/music/what-have-you) do you recommend to your friends?
 
For music, Bob Wills & his Texas Playboys. He's the King of Western Swing. Everyone must have a complete collection.

The films that everyone has to see are Touch of Evil and Kubrick’s The Killing. Oh, and Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia by Sam Peckinpah.

Lately all I read is news stuff. But Nick Tosches' Hellfire—the biography of Jerry Lee Lewis—completely explains southern Pentecostal culture.

 



See The Wild and Wonderful Whites of West Virginia at Tribeca Cinemas May 5-11. Not in NYC? Watch it On Demand!

 

Read The New York Times review.

 

Join the Wild & Wonderful Whites group on Facebook.

 

Become a fan of Tribeca on Facebook.

 



Nitzberg Outtakes:

 

"People should probably come see my film to see Les White’s penis. Because it’s very beautiful, and his testicles are nice and hang-y."

"Not to give anything away, but on the night before one of the Whites headed off the rehab, three of the White women said I had to f&%$ her before she went. I was like, 'I can’t do that.' They said, 'Well, then show her your penis; it’s the least you can do.'"

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