A sprawling hillbilly family from West Virginia, the Whites first came to renown in the 1991 documentary Dancing Outlaw, which followed Jesco White, a petrol-huffing Appalachian mountain dancer struggling to follow in the clogsteps of his famous father. Almost two decades later, Julien Nitzberg, a producer on Dancing Outlaw, has spent a year filming the family for The Wild and Wonderful Whites of West Virginia, a documentary that is shocking, hilarious, thrilling and tragic roughly in equal measure, including tales of shootouts with the police and scenes of a mother who has just given birth snorting ground-up pain pills. Some have criticised it as exploitative, but Nitzberg defends it as a “portrait of American bad-assdom at its best”. We talked to him and his crew about their year spent with the Whites, and their subsequent death threats.
Dazed Digital: Some people have claimed the film is exploitative of the Whites, what’s your position on that?
Julien Nitzberg (Director): I was not trying to make a moral film, I was trying to make an honest film that showed the Whites in all their complexity. This is not a fictional story but real life. And real life doesn’t come with morals like in TV shows. We show them in all their glory and all their tragedy. Some people get mad because we show drug use at certain points with no condemnation and also sometimes as fun. But drugs are sometimes fun.
Dominic Giordano (Cameraman): Nope. The Whites are "The Whites." Cameras or no cameras. What you see is what you get. They had my back and I theirs. Shit. West Virginia got to me.
Johnny Knoxville (Executive Producer): We didn’t exploit the Whites. We didn’t encourage the Whites to act in any manner that they don’t every day. We were there to document their lives and we felt that theirs was an interesting story, so we made the documentary with their blessing.
DD: What is your most abiding memory of making this film?
Paige Hill (Associate Producer): I often ran errands with the family – the first night, all I could report to Julien was that Sue Bob’s boyfriend was arrested and it involved third degree burns and a ham.
Julien Nitzberg: I was held down by Annie Mae who is way stronger than me as she put hickeys all over my neck. She then informed me we were fucking that night and wouldn’t let go of me. She dragged me to a bar where she got super drunk. When she had to pee I literally ran off and escaped. I was pretty much sexually harassed and hit on by every woman in the White family, and one man who I will not mention.
DD: Violence is a way of life for the Whites. Were you scared for your personal safety at any points?
Julien Nitzberg: On this film we got eight different death threats. When interviewing crew I had a questionnaire they had to fill out. One of the questions was- “If you see a member of the crew getting shot, do you A) run, B) call the police, C) rush over and film?” If they didn’t answer “C” they automatically weren’t hired.
Paige Hill: Since I had never been on a film before, I wasn’t entirely sure that every film didn’t automatically have a contingency plan in case one of the subjects shoots the director.
DD: Has the experience of working on the film changed you at all?
Julien Nitzberg: We were a lot like combat photographers in the way our sense of humour got darker to handle some of the things we were experiencing. I’d be telling stories about horrible things that happened on shoots and laughing and normal people would be freaked out. Normals don’t get it and you have to act different around them.
Dominic Giordano: We always joked on the ride ride home how we felt like we were coming down from a mean acid trip. Kind of like Vietnam. People asked questions… but you had to be there man. At first it took me a few days to readjust to normal life. But I miss it. Don't take the "White Acid."
DD: What did you think of the White women?
Julien Nitzberg: Right before Kirk was going in to rehab, a group of the White women surrounded me and told me I had to fuck Kirk that night “because she wouldn’t be getting any dick in rehab for two months.” I tried to explain that much as I wanted to have sex with Kirk, as a filmmaker, I couldn’t. Sue Bob immediately jumped in and said, “Well the least you could do is show her your cock.”
Jeff Tremaine (Executive Producer): Mamie is my favorite character. She is just so tough. She’s so likable in a scary kind of way. Sue-Kirk had the most compelling story happening as we were filming this. She’s doing some harsh, gnarly things, but you still like her somehow and you’re still rooting for her. It shows that it’s not black and white.
DD: People who get wasted are usually keen that everyone else around them gets fucked up as well. Did you get involved in this side of things?
Dominic Giordano: They asked me to partake and I always answered "If I get too fucked-up, I might fuck up the footage and make you look like dumb-asses and you won't get tons of pussy." Derkie White AKA “Dirty White Boy" respected that.
Julien Nitzberg: I did some coke with Jesco on the first shoot. I felt like Jesco offering me coke was like Willie Nelson offering you weed, you can’t say no, it’s too much of an honour. After that though, I made my policy to say not to drugs. If I used drugs with them, then I would have gotten in a position where I would have to buy them drugs and I felt that was an ethically bad place to be.
Storm Taylor: Naw... I just kept all of the pills people gave me and traded them out for beer and whiskey at the end of the night. THAT'S how you survive in the country.
DD: How do you ultimately see the Whites as people?
Ben Daughtrey (Editor): On one hand, I see them as independent free spirits un-hindered by the constraints of modern civilization. On the other, their souls are held captive by drugs and alcohol. It’s complicated, and far too complex to try to figure out in a paragraph, much less a movie, or a lifetime.
Julien Nitzberg: I think the Whites represent a part of America we too often keep hidden. Poor people are just not shown in our country because it contradicts our national myth that anyone can make it if they try. Which is utter nonsense. Some people have the decks stacked against them from birth by circumstances like geography, lack of educational opportunities and their own family cultures. This doesn’t mean that the family doesn’t have dignity or intelligence and shouldn't be treated this way.
The Wild And Wonderful Whites of West Virginia will be on Current TV on November 29