EVERY TIME YOU TURN on a TV or enter a book store, you can find someone confessing a sordid tale of childhood abuse. We're so inured to the horrors of other people's lives (to say nothing of our own)--the clamor of voices trying to shock us into pity and fear--that very little can legitimately be called shocking anymore. James Ronald Whitney's documentary Just, Melvin, which chronicles the legacy of sexual abuse across three generations of his hyper-extended American family, is, in fact, profoundly shocking. As each of Melvin Just's nine daughters and stepdaughters (Whitney's mother, aunts, and cousins) tells her story of constant molestation, each more unimaginably horrible than the last, a critical mass accretes: How can this possibly have been allowed to continue? And as we learn the hows and whys--and hear more evidence of Melvin's evil ways (including a compelling argument that he was a murderer)--we are confounded, disturbed, destroyed. All the women have been thwarted, but all have survived--some better than others. Though the youngest is nearly 40, and at least half of them are drunk, high, or homeless throughout, it's clear that every day of their lives is spent in reaction to the unshakable (and heretofore unacknowledged) events in their childhoods.

Sordid though the content may be, what distinguishes the film as a work of art is its versatility of tone: Whitney cuts from victims' tearful revelations to campy footage of himself winning obscure game shows and dancing on Star Search. This absurd disjunction seems irresponsibly flippant at first, but as the film progresses (and as I watched it a second and third time), it takes the shape of a necessary intrusion of hope--in a peculiar form, perhaps, but hope nonetheless. Along with footage of the women laughing and clowning around, theseinterludes show that the dominant intent of the piece is not to generate pity, but to reveal honesty, and to redeem the struggle of muted human beings who've spent a lifetime trying, one way or another, to speak.

I interviewed director James Ronald Whitney by phone as he was preparing for the first SIFF screening of Just, Melvin, which was to be attended by the women chronicled in the film. For all but two of them, it would be their first time seeing the film.


Are you at all worried about what their reaction is going to be? Do you worry that they might think the film is exploitative?

Not at all. First, I don't worry about things in general. My heart and soul was in this. [The daughters] had one huge concern, and that was that it was going to be a film that ultimately could help other kids, that could be sort of an awakening, a wake-up call to society. This is so far surpassing what they ever thought they'd be doing to help out other people; they'll be thrilled to death. I mean, we're going to definitely have some fights around the dinner table... "Why did you put that in the film?!" And I hope so. Otherwise, it's not as incredibly honest as I needed it to be. And they're also very resilient people. They've gone through so much, obviously. The fact that something positive can come out of that mess.... I think they're going to be excited about it.


These are the most intensely personal things that people can talk about, even in private, much less in front of a movie camera. But their candor is totally shock-ing. Did they go along with the idea of the film right away?

For my family, it wasn't James Ronald Whitney, director, they were talking to--it was their cousin or nephew, Ronny. I think in the back of their minds they were thinking, "this is a wonderful project for him, but probably not going to amount to anything." Also, because they're typically not sober people, they always kind of live in a fog. So a lot of the emotion you see there is their everyday realities--their real foggy emotions. I knew that when I was filming them, I just wanted them to be themselves. I didn't want any kind of control. I wanted it to be horribly honest.

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