Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Tribeca Report No. 6

The Wild and Wonderful Whites of West Virginia is about such a thoroughly repulsive bunch of people, I wonder if my distaste for the film is just a byproduct of my dislike for them. The Whites gained notoriety back in the early 1990s, when the PBS documentary Dancing Outlaw, profiling Jesco White, became something of a cult phenomenon. It’s exactly the kind of film that you can imagine Johnny Knoxville knowing by heart and quoting with his friends; he’s the executive producer of this follow-up, which introduces us to many members of the extended White clan.

They’re a huge crew of thickly-accented mountain folk, who spend their short days and long nights drinking, shooting, fighting, yelling, and getting high—sometimes from weed, usually from grinded-up pills, which they snort like coke (early in the film, young Derek White rattles off a list of meds with alarming precision). Daughter Kirk actually has one of the film’s rare moments of insight; after the birth of her new baby, she talks about how she wants better for her daughter than she had. It’s a nice moment whose spell is broken by the next shot, in which she snorts up some crushed pills in her hospital room, in front of the baby. The hospital ends up keeping the baby and turning it over to Child Protective Services. Shocking!

Director Julien Nitzberg invests a lot of time and potential emotional energy in Kirk’s struggle (she decides to clean up so she can get her baby back), but it feels like he’s trying to have it both ways. It’s an example of the film’s schizophrenia: how does it feel about these people? It’s easy to look down at their willful ignorance and hicky voices (“If he ain’t high on drugs, if he ain’t high on alky-hol…”); it’s easy to sneer and laugh. But is the film doing that? Knoxville got MTV Films to front a chunk of the funding, and it is certainly cut for an MTV audience, utilizing a slice-and-dice editing style that’s fast-paced and music-heavy. That audience is primarily there to laugh at the funny rednecks and cheer their drugging and drinking and fucking and huffing. So what will they make of the attempts to downshift to genuine emotion in the third act? Of the brief interlude that contextualizes their behavior within the mining town culture? The audience that will be affected by that stuff has probably already walked out.

There is, without question, a train-wreck quality to The Wild and Wonderful Whites of West Virginia. As repulsive as these people are, you can’t help but watch as they revel in their excesses. But by the one-hour mark, I had lost patience with them, and with the film. It’s just kind of sad and depressing to spend time with them. And the images that close the film, of the next generation of Whites, are frankly a little terrifying.

* * *

God, but this is a hard film to watch. Libby Spears’ Playground is a thorough and gut-wrenching examination of the child sex trade—how it works, and how it harms. It is an emotional film, but it looks at the problem through clear eyes and with sharp focus. The executive producers are Steven Soderbergh, George Clooney, and his producing partner Grant Heslov, a fact that I mention because, in putting their names on a film like this, they’re doing the best thing you can do with the reputations they’ve attained. Plainly put, I saw the film because their names were on it. I might not have otherwise, but I’m glad I did. Playground is like a kick in the head.

The picture is cannily constructed. Spears focuses on one particular case, an 11-year-old Oregon girl named Michelle who was discovered turning tricks in Vancouver. The daughter of an addict, Michelle had been in and out of countless foster homes and was one of those kids who just got “lost in the system.” Her story made international headlines, but after she was returned to another foster home, she disappeared again. Spears and her crew, with the help of the appropriate agencies, try to find her, providing an ingenious arc for the film’s duration.

Within that construct, other stories are told. Spears utilizes a wealth of interviews, both with witnesses and experts, as well as startling statistics and (in what sounds like a trite gimmick, but isn’t) haunting animations by Yoshimoto Nara. Not all of her devices work; the shots of empty, badly chipped playground equipment, for example, feel like exactly what they are—a heavy-handed piece of symbolism in a film that’s powerful enough with it. And while some of the cultural criticisms are valid, others are painting with a pretty broad brush. While the film’s profile of a sex offender is valuable and insightful, the film is generally more successful at explaining how these things happen, rather than why.

“We all failed her,” says Michelle’s social worker. That may very well be the case. We certainly leave Playground feeling that, in many ways, she didn’t have a chance—particularly in grasping how this industry works, and how easily its clients can attain their desires. I won’t reveal what becomes of Michelle, except to say that the final piece of information about her just knocks the wind out of you. That goes for the movie, too.

* * *

The fixer’s job is multifold. He is hired by foreign journalists as a translator and facilitator; when they come into his country for a story, he uses his connections to get them access, set up interviews, and make things happen. For a foreign correspondent, particularly in wartime, a good fixer is vital. Ajmal Naqshbandi was a very good fixer, and in 2007, he was kidnapped and killed by the Taliban.

Fixer: The Taking of Ajmal Naqshbandi tells his story. It’s constructed like a thriller and plays like a procedural drama, reconstructing his ordeal and his life before it with methods both expected and unique. The opening sequence’s on-screen text tells us that he was murdered; the story isn’t played for suspense. In fact, the knowledge of his fate lends a poignancy to the rest of the film. Instead, we jump back to six months before the kidnapping, when he was working with Nation reporter Christian Parenti on a story about top Taliban commander Mullah Dadullah, and we see him and Parenti at work, intercut with the story of his kidnapping and ultimate death.

It’s structurally reminiscent of Jose Padilha and Felipe Lacerda’s brilliant 2002 documentary Bus 174; the fascinating background is crosscut with an urgent, unwinding event. The background material is very good—I’m not sure why so much of the Nation investigation was filmed, but it was not done carelessly. The image is sharp, well-shot, and well-framed, even if we do spend an awful lot of time watching people driving around in cars talking.

Olds’ also uses images from the raw, repugnant Taliban-produced videos; many of them are scarier than any horror film. He is reasonably tasteful and tactful in what he does and doesn’t show, but often these clips are even more disturbing with the obstructions than they might be unedited—we’re imagining what’s behind that black box based on what we are seeing, and it’s not pretty. It’s barbaric, and it’s horrifying. So is the footage of Naqshbandi and Parenti going into an area just after a suicide bombing; that’s another sequence that’s not for the squeamish.

Fixer is a sturdy, accomplished documentary, and its parallel timelines are a masterstroke. It not only sustains the storytelling, but it hurts a little too—there is some uncomfortable foreshadowing when we hear Naqshbandi explain exactly how and why he’s not in danger of exactly the kind of fate that he met. That’s a tough moment to take. In moments like that, and in its extraordinarily powerful, quiet ending, Fixer approaches greatness. It’s a fine, fine film.

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