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Boone Co. family stars in documentary

The Parthenon

Published: Thursday, July 29, 2010

Updated: Thursday, July 29, 2010 16:07

Jesco White

Courtesy of Tribeca Film

Jesco White mountain dances while Hank Williams III plays the guitar. Julien Nitzberg, director of "The Wild and Wonderful Whites of West Virginia," said those moments were his favorite to film.

 West Virginians have heard of the White family. The Boone county natives are notorious for their outlandish antics and for the cult favorite documentary "The Dancing Outlaw" in which they were featured. 

Julien Nitzberg served as associate producer of "The Dancing Outlaw," and now he's back with the White family for his new documentary "The Wild and Wonderful Whites of West Virginia."

The documentary follows the lives of the White family for one year. Throughout this year audiences will discover that shootouts, robberies, drug dealing, pill popping, murders and tap dancing are everyday occurrences for the Whites.

Since Nitzberg has known  White family member Mamie for more than 20 years, the entire family was very cooperative with him. Nitzberg writes in an e-mail interview the first time he met Mamie. "She was on acid that night and was (angry that a) 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."

Johnny Knoxville of "Jackass" fame contacted him 20 years later wanting to meet and discuss further documentation of the White family.

The Whites were very open during filming and few things were off limits. "There were certain family members who were on probation and would make us turn off the cameras when they committed illegal acts," Nitzberg said.

Nitzberg's interest in filming the White family was the unusual, alternative lifestyle that they live. He dismisses the idea of the American dream, which he calls utter nonsense. "I think the Whites represent a part of America we too often keep hidden. Some people have the decks stacked against them from birth by circumstances like geography, lack of educational opportunities and their own family cultures." 

"The Wild and Wonderful Whites of West Virginia" shows how the White family's criminality is a cycle that is trapping each younger generation. Nitzberg says that growing up hearing about and seeing criminal acts in one's family being romanticized, it's only natural to grow up excited to do the same. 

Nitzberg explains that another reason he is interested in the Whites is the complexity of their lives that intertwines with beauty, humor and intelligence. "There is something magical about the family being the repository of this dying tradition of mountain dancing." The mystical way the Whites have of speaking and telling stories, Nitzberg believes, is the reason people have enjoyed the documentary.

 Although sometimes it was difficult or intense while filming certain scenes such as the funeral and some of the drug use and parties, Nitzberg did find certain scenes fun or amusing to shoot. "The scenes with Jesco (White) dancing with Hank Williams III were the most fun to shoot. I (also) enjoyed every interview we did because I just love talking to the family." 

Nitzberg says that viewers will go on a rollercoaster ride of emotions with the Whites. From loving their outlaw attitude to fearing for them and their self-destructive way of life, Nitzberg says that filming became hard to watch "because we cared about them."

Nitzberg is very clear that he doesn't want this to be a social issue documentary. "(I want this to be) a multi-layered family portrait allowing people to observe and explore this family that exists in America but is never shown with a sympathetic eye.

"I'm very excited to have the film finally show in Huntington, West Virginia," Nitzberg said. "I've always admired the beauty of Huntington and have long been a fan of the music of Hawkshaw Hawkins, a great country singer from Huntington. We spent some time filming in Huntington with Sue Bob White when she was buying a prom dress for her daughter there and I have worked on other documentaries that shot there, also."

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