Wayback Archives #3 Interview with director Julien Nitzberg on “The Wonderful Whites Of West Virginia”

In 1991 PBS public television released the ‘different drummer’ series of documentaries, focusing on eclectic and unique performers throughout the United States.

The most memorable character to emerge out of the series was Jesco White, a second generation mountain clog dancer from Boone county West Virginia. At first glance Jesco comes off as your typical backwoods ass scratching hillbilly, but as a simple assessment, it criminally sells Jesco short. Some see him as Appalachian redneck royalty, some see him as a tap dancing Elvis impersonator, and other simply see him as a glue sniffing criminal.
The best way to approach Jesco White is the same way you might take a pull of moonshine. Take a hit straight and strong, and see where you stand after the fact. You’ll either go back for more or swear off the stuff for life.

Director Julien Nitzberg first crossed paths with Jesco and the White family while shooting a documentary on one man psychobily legend Hasil Adkins.
It was no co-incidence that Hasil also happened to reside in the same county,
which was becoming notorious for it’s outlaw tendencies. After time, and slow exposure to Jesco and his clan, Nitzberg soon gained their trust and friendship. After a number of years, with the approval of the White family, Nitzberg assembled a bare bones crew, and began to put together footage for what would come to be known as, ‘The Wonderful Whites Of West Virginia”.

After hearing about the project, I got in touch with Julien before the initial release of the film, to ask about the filming process, and his relationship with the ‘Wonderful Whites’.

Originally published on ‘Pop syndicate’

Family Tradition: Documenting The Wild and Wonderful Whites Of West Virginia

‘A little rebellion now and then is a good thing’ – Thomas Jefferson

There are those who will tell you that any society worth it’s weight should not only be measured by the powers that establish the rules and boundaries of the land, but also by those who choose to live outside of these parameters.

A paradox emerges as those who remain on the fringes of society become just as respected as those who try to establish the boundaries. From Billy the kid, to Boxcar Bertha and Bonnie and Clyde, these anti-social legends make up just as much of the fabric of America, as any politico or social activist out there. The rebels are revered for their disregard of laws, and their refusal to be reeled in by social constructs, and presumptions. While America has prided itself in it’s pursuit of ‘taming the wild frontier’, the rebels have always claimed the frontier as their own, as something that will remain forever wild, true, and free. One family of renegades who have carried on the torch of social dissent, are the White family of Boone county West Virginia.

Many throughout West Virginia will tell you that trouble follows the White family, in the same way that stink trails shit. The family is infamous for their conflicts with the law, and charges of drug dealing, robbery, assaults, and attempted murder. Regardless of the disdain and negative reputation, there are others who see the Whites as a rare and honest breed, who are just basically following the American tradition of the ‘pursuit of liberty’ as they see fit.

Director Julien Nitzberg has been a friend of the White family for 20 years, and has just released his documentary, ‘The Wild and Wonderful Whites of West Virginia’, that premiered at this year’s Tribecca film festival in New York. He is no stranger to documenting the wild residents of Boone county, having shot, ‘The wild world of Hasil Adkins’ in 1993, and acting as associate producer on, ‘Dancing Outlaw’, the story of Jesco White. With his recent film, Nitzberg became a fly on the outhouse wall, documenting the family for a full year, with an unblinking eye, warts and all. To hear Julien tell the tale, the project came about from past footage he had shot, and interest from Johnny Knoxville.

‘I’d actually shot a bunch of footage prior to Dancing Outlaw of Jesco and Mamie White hanging out. I always wanted the world to see this footage. Then, out of the blue, I got a call from a friend telling me that Johnny Knoxville was a big fan of my Hasil Adkins documentary and wanted to know if he could call me. I ended up showing him my “secret Jesco footage” and Knoxville got obsessed with it. We started talking about figuring out a way to release it.

I remembered how I’d found everyone in the family to be as wild and interesting as Jesco.   So Knoxville and I developed the idea to go back and explore a documentary about the rest of the family and the younger generations of what had become, since Dancing Outlaw, West Virginia’s most famous or (depending on your point of view) infamous family. Out of his own pocket, he paid for me to shoot for four days with one of his childhood friends Storm Taylor as my producer. Strom had known the Whites for a few years and was invaluable. We came back with what would become the basis of the film. That was cut into a twenty minute mini-documentary which we took to Jeff Yapp at MTV who kindly agreed to finance us to follow the family for a full year.’

Given the nature of the brood, and the circumstances that unfolded within the film, one could say that Nitzberg captured lightning in a bottle. There’s little chance that anyone outside of close friends would be given the chance to record the family so intimately for a year without having their  ass handed to them.

‘It was always difficult. There is so much stress in the family and this time was particularly stressful because of all the problems we show in the film. Because I have such a close friendship with the Whites they are completely comfortable with the camera. I called what we were creating “immersive filmmaking.” There was no distance between us and the family, nor could there be. It’s hard to have distance when you have 5 family members and 5 crew members crowded into a tiny apartment or trailer for hours every day. Instead, we became a complete part of their lives. When we ate, we turned the cameras off and ate with the family. We really became like family. People have commented that we have been able to get amazing intimacy in our footage. I think this is because we were more like family members shooting home movies than outsiders filming them.’

On screen the Whites come across with all the subtlety of a fart in church. Lines are chopped, pills are popped, and people are shot full of holes, all with a blatant disregard for any form of law. But while the film boldly walks through the valley of Meth, and the threat of violence hangs prominently in the air, Nitzberg wisely shows the sad sober results that often come with living the outlaw lifestyle.

It was actually something Johnny Knoxville stressed early in the making of the film. He’s a super smart and insanely film literate guy and we agreed that this film wouldn’t just celebrate outlaw culture but also explore its pitfalls. We start off showing the wild, fun side of the outlaw life but at a certain point start seeding in how that self-destructivity can fuck you up.

Suddenly the audience realizes this isn’t all fun but is dangerous.’

From the conception of the project there were also a number of other intentions that the director felt the film had an obligation to convey. Considering the volatile nature of the family, it might have been tempting to portray them in a exploitative manner, but this was something that was intentionally avoided from the get go. Instead, the film retains an honest, and often poetic look at the Whites, as opposed the ‘white trash kitsch’ approach taken by the pervious film, ‘Dancing Outlaw’.

‘The Whites are funny as shit but also deep and I felt that Dancing Outlaw oriented a bit too much towards being a comic portrayal. They were concerned that they felt Dancing Outlaw was edited to mock them. I tried to let them know that if they did something foolish on camera, it might end up in the film, but it was not going to be approached in the manner of Dancing Outlaw. We did tell everyone that if they wanted us to turn the cameras off at anytime, we would, but if they didn’t, then anything could end up in the film. Since I’d known Jesco and Mamie for 20 years, they felt trust in me and a great sense of comfort.’

The other issue that the film tries to touch on is the matter of being raised in a continuous cycle of poverty, and the attempts (or lack of) to break the chain, and follow new roads to improvement. In the film, some of the clan are seen moving away from Boone county to find new opportunities for themselves, and to avoid the reputation that comes with the family name.

‘I think the Whites of Minnesota have a good chance to break the cycle because they are living in a different culture that also has more opportunities. Sue Bob has a daughter Ashley who isn’t in the movie and is a straight A student and wants to get out of Boone County. Kirk White is still doing well and is about to get her first legit job. In reality, America fucks the poor and the poor often fuck themselves as well. There are the occasional few who escape from poverty and because of amazing self-will make it to places like MIT. But this is the exception. No one really wants to show the other side and how the world is stacked against them. The film is about these cycles that generation after generation of families get trapped in that actually degenerate. With the Whites we also show that when you grow up in a criminal family, you learn different ethical codes that can fuck you early in ways that fuck you up for the rest of your life. You see your elders talking about crimes in a romantic way and you idolize those people and end up replicating their behavior, stuck in a cycle that becomes nearly impossible to escape. These cycles aren’t a West Virginia phenomenon but a phenomenon you can see anywhere there is a criminal culture. But the impossibility of escaping them is what intrigued me in following the different generations of the family.

As a whole, the film really shines a light on the ‘human’ nature of the White family, as opposed to the reputation. Lives are lost, and penalties are paid for dearly, but yet they still maintain their dignity, and will to carry on. In a way the film comes across as if Martin Scorsese directed an episode of ‘Hee Haw’. Regardless of your personal leanings towards the subject matter, it’s hard to remain unaffected at some of the stark reality that the film presents.

‘I really wanted to make a cinema verite documentary about the family. I love Boone County and the White family. If I could, I would make a documentary in that area every two years. That part of America is never shown in a realistic or non-patronizing light and I was eager to do that and show the background of the area as well. I hoped to make something they would like (even though I was more concerned with it being honest.) Amazingly, Jesco and Mamie loved the film. Unlike Dancing Outlaw, where there were obvious manipulations of the subjects, ours was super honest and non-manipulative. I warned Jesco and Mamie that parts would be painful to watch. Both were very affected by the scenes of their mother’s sickness, but in the end loved the film.’

To film and live with the most notorious outlaws of West Virginia for a full year is no small feat in itself. To have them turn around and embrace the film is nothing short of a minor miracle. After contemplating the end result, Julien Nitzberg, feels that one of his proudest achievements during the project was, ‘not getting shot’. All joking aside, all those involved in the production of the film should be commended for their expose on another side of West Virginia that few get to see outside of the hollow. The director makes it clear that the White family do not represent West Virginia as a whole, but only a segment of it’s colorful history.

They may not walk amongst the minds and higher class of the state, but they do represent the hearts and guts of the resilient people of Boone county.

The film itself pulls no punches, and Mamie and Jesco White would be the first to tell you so. It is what it is, take it or leave it, and some might say it’s like sitting down to a jelly jar of homemade swish. If you’re in, you’re in for the long haul, and some of it may leave a bad taste in your mouth, and make your head spin, but what a hell of a ride.


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