Of all the adjectives people might use to describe documentary films–important, artsy, difficult–one that does not spring immediately to mind is fun. But the new documentary Finders Keepers challenges this preconception of nonfiction films as hard work, offering a wild tale full of severed limbs, courtroom drama, and plenty of salty humor.
In the midst of the many belly laughs the film offers, though, it also poses a key question for sensitive viewers of documentaries: when is it okay to laugh at the people onscreen?
The story revolves around a legal dispute between two men over a preserved, amputated leg. When irrepressible showboat Shannon Whisnant finds the leg in a grill he purchases at auction, he sets out to do the American thing and make some money off the spectacle. John Wood, the leg’s original owner, demands its return. Whisnant refuses to budge. The two men trade words and eventually take each other to court. Filmmakers Bryan Carberry and J. Clay Tweel keep their focus tight on the two characters, and Whisnant especially fills up the screen with his charisma and homebrewed witticisms.
As funny as the film is, I found myself a little unsettled at certain points laughing at its contents. At The Dissolve, Scott Tobias pinpointed one source of my unease when he described the film as “borderline hicksploitation.”Finders Keepers takes place mostly in one small North Carolina town, and both Whisnant and Wood represent an oft-mocked sort of Southern whiteness. So as Whisnant rattled off one down-home proverb after another, I found it hard to determine why exactly I found myself laughing. Was it because Whisnant said something genuinely funny and provocative, or because he said it in a rustic, unsophisticated way, with a twang in his voice?
The divide between laughing with and laughing at the characters in a film has never been clear in documentaries, and it must be navigated with caution. As opposed to a fictional comedy, the stakes in a documentary have real-world meaning: documentary subjects have inner lives that actually exist, and real dignity that can be assaulted.
The director has a responsibility, of course, to present the characters of a film in ways that do not distort their personalities exploitatively. Yet even the most sensitive directors must rely on the audience to complete the picture accurately. When Errol Morris' first film, Gates of Heaven, was released, some people accused the director of mocking the subjects of his film—pet owners who wanted their deceased to have loving, often extravagant, burials. In my view, Morris presents the pet owners with remarkable sympathy–their quirks emerge as part of the larger picture of their humanity–but it takes a sensitive eye to suss out the fine line between tragedy and comedy.
Are we as audiences sensitive enough to the glorious contradictions of our fellow humans—the dignity mixed with foolishness—to see documentaries like these and respond appropriately? Sometimes it seems highly unlikely. At the same film festival where I saw Finders Keepers, I also caught Nick Broomfield's chilling documentary Tales of the Grim Sleeper, about a serial killer who, through police negligence, carried on his gruesome murders of African-American women for thirty years in Los Angeles. In his films, Broomfield appears as a character, investigating events while putting himself in the story. Over the course of his sleuthing, Broomfield strikes up a friendship with Pam, a prostitute who knew many of the murdered women.
Like Shannon Whisnant, Pam fills every scene with her verve and charisma. Like Shannon, she often rattles off humorous turns of phrase. Given Tales of the Grim Sleepers' higher narrative stakes, however, the question of when to laugh becomes even knottier. Unfortunately a good chunk of the audience I saw the film with gave little consideration to these subtleties, and roared with laughter nearly every time Pam opened her mouth—including during several emotionally charged moments during which Pam described lost friends. In this context, the audience clearly crossed a line, laughing not at what Pam said, but at Pam herself, for her lack of formal eloquence, her propensity to liberally salt her language with swear words—at all the markers that distinguished her from them.