interview with director Julien Nitzberg…
Julien Nitzberg, associate producer of the cult documentary Dancing Outlaw, which stars the notorious Appalachian mountain dancer Jesco White, has set himself up for the same criticism that often gets leveled at fiction filmmakers like Lars Von Trier and Michael Haneke. When directors show politically incorrect behavior without passing judgment on that behavior, it rubs many folks the wrong way, leading to charges of misogyny in Von Trier’s case or nihilism in Haneke’s. Nitzberg’s latest film, The Wild and Wonderful Whites of West Virginia, has and will most certainly be judged exploitative for its celebratory portrayal of Jesco and his kin: poor, white, violent West Virginian drug dealers who have no qualms about snorting pills for the camera at their octogenarian matriarch’s birthday party. But underlying the reality-TV hi-jinks is a true respect for the subjects. Nitzberg seems almost in awe of the Whites’ ability to buck the system so thoroughly and blatantly. The Whites indeed have created their own lawless world where the primal, Biblical eye-for-an-eye rule trumps all. One can’t help but think Werner Herzog would be tickled pink by both the doc and the rebel director behind its lens.
Slant:What possessed you to want to make a film about the Whites and how did the production eventually come together?
Julien Nitzberg: I met Mamie White back in 1989 when I was making a documentary about Boone County‘s famous rockabilly and proto-punk singer, Hasil Adkins. Hasil and D. Ray White, the famous tap-dancing patriarch of the White family, used to perform together, so the Whites were good friends of Hasil’s. I was shooting Hasil’s concert and a crazed catfight broke out between three female fans of Hasil. This fight was like something out of an old western and went on forever. Finally Mamie jumped in and broke it up, tossing each woman to a different side of the bar like they were baby dolls. She was on acid that night and was pissed the catfight was ruining her good party. A week later, I saw Mamie again and she was on acid again. She kindly invited me to her birthday party, where she promised me she would have a “cake with tits and a pussy on it.” As a man who loves cake, I found this to be an offer I couldn’t refuse. At her house, I met Jesco and immediately became obsessed with the whole family. I went back the next week and shot the first footage of Jesco. This footage became the basis of Dancing Outlaw, the PBS documentary that made Jesco into a cult icon. So, 20 years later I get a call telling me that Johnny Knoxville was a fan of my documentaries and wanted to meet me. At this point, I’d stopped making documentaries and was working in Hollywood writing scripts for HBO and had just written and directed an operetta called The Beastly Bombing or a Terrible Tale of Terrorists Tamed by the Tangles of True Love, about a group of white supremacists who come to New York to blow up the Brooklyn Bridge and meet a group of Al Qaeda terrorists who have arrived at the same time with the same plan. They eventually bond musically with songs about how much they both hate Jews. Anyway, Knoxville and I met and became friends, bonding over a mutual love of David Allan Coe’s X-rated country albums. He started coming to see Beastly Bombing every week and we started talking about doing a project together. I showed him my early Jesco footage one day and then the next thing I know he had the idea that I had to go back to West Virginia.
“THE WILD AND WONDERFUL WHITES OF WEST VIRGINIA” 2009 directed by Julien Nitzberg