Beautiful South

BBC documentary takes a dark ride into the Deep South

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DIRECTED BY Andrew Douglas

STARRING Jim White, Johnny Dowd, The Handsome Family

Opens June 28, Cert 12A, 85 mins

Showing for a limited time at London’s National Film Theatre prior to an airing on television, this is film-maker Andrew Douglas’ road trip through America’s Deep South, inspired by Jim White’s creepy-strange 1997 debut, The Mysterious Tale Of How I Shouted Wrong-Eyed Jesus.

“If there’s no moderation,” Jim White told Uncut recently, “the truth is easier to apprehend. Only it’s wearing a Halloween costume. It’s not the friendly face of truth. It’s kinda scary.” Trawling the truck stops, coal mines, prisons, “cut’n’shoot” bars and Pentecostal churches in a beat-up 1970 Chevy (with a 6ft effigy of Christ jammed in the trunk), White himself acts as tour guide in this riveting film.

And what does White find? A populace riven by extremes, dirt-poor white folk caught between Jesus and Hell with nothing in between. With backwater trailer parks dotting the horizon like shanty tombstones, a spiritual desperation emerges, born of isolation, where even grief is something to hold on to. It reminds you you’re still alive. At Concordia Correctional Facility, Louisiana, inmates explain simply that “doing bad is exciting.” Outside, a gun-toting Hell’s Angel wannabe unloads at a “Stop” sign. For him, being bad beats being nothing. White uncovers cyclical patterns of behaviour?on every smalltown fringe there lurks artists, criminals and religious fanatics, hollow-eyed souls for whom sin is a time-honoured ritual. Along the way, Johnny Dowd, The Handsome Family, David Eugene Edwards, David Johansen and knotty old-time banjoist Lee Sexton provide musical interludes in barber shops, houseboats and midnight parking lots (the soundtrack’s a killer, obviously).

Despite reinforcing the view of the American South as a grisly car-smash of humanity, full of freaky Deliverance hicks and Rod Steiger cops, White’s take is ultimately sympathetic. It’s a world free from sophisticated distraction, forced to stare down the truth. Communities ruled by what Flannery O’Connor called “wise blood”. Most tellingly, writer Harry Crews explains that southern culture finds its identity in deep traditions of storytelling. It’s their way of righting an imperfect world. Genuinely compelling.

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