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.
Documentary audiences have hardly cornered the market on insensitive viewing—at the recent screening I attended of the tense but fictional drug war film Sicario, many people whooped and hollered through the film's deliberately troubling portrayal of violence. But the imperative to watch with empathy and discernment strikes me as all the more important in a form where the subjects onscreen are not actors, but real people. When the people we mock and feel superior to have real lives, real struggles and pains and joys, it makes our desire to dominate them through ridicule that much more twisted, a slap in the face of the imago dei.
Can we do better? Can we laugh without laughing at others? Is the time honored command to laugh with people, and not at them, possible in the slippery world of documentaries?
I think the answer lies, in part at least, in laughing less, and laughing better.
Tamping down the urge to laugh does not come easily, especially since laughter often strikes us out of the blue, for unexpected reasons. Adults no less than children tend to resort to laughter as a defense mechanism, when confronted by something new and troubling. Controlling these urges takes practice and self-awareness, a guarding of the self.
The point here is not, of course, to rob ourselves of the joy of laughing at funny things. And we certainly should not cut down on laughter in order to view characters such as Pam with a feeling like unadulterated pity, an emotion no less condescending than mocking laughter.
Instead, our goal should be to cultivate a desire to see beyond the surface and witness people in the depth of their complexity. If you find yourself watching a documentary and reflexively laughing every time a particular character comes on screen, you can safely assume you have swapped out the reality of that person for a caricature. When you find a giggle rising in your throat, catch yourself before it escapes. Hold it a minute, and ask yourself why you want to laugh in this moment. Then release it or beat it back down as necessary.
As Christians, we should excel others in sensitive viewing. When we watch people talk about themselves and their lives onscreen, we should listen attentively and empathetically. If we laugh at Shannon Whisnant, it should not be because he's some dumb hick who makes us feel better about ourselves, but because he has a rich, complex personality that bursts at the seams with enthusiasm and energy. Laughter at its best gives us a potent way to appreciate the tangled beauty of creation, even as it comes to us through the story of a nonfiction film—so long as we laugh from joy, and not derision.
Asher Gelzer-Govatos is a Ph.D. student in Comparative Literature at Washington University in St. Louis, where he lives with his family. The film critic for the Columbia Daily Tribune newspaper, his work has appeared in outlets such as Paste, The Week, and Books & Culture.