Thousands of Juggalos, fans of hip hop duo Insane Clown Posse, converge each year for a music festival called the Gathering. This hypnotic documentary frames the hard partying, and often shocking, scene with a cinematic lens, connecting with the colorful cast of characters that call the Juggalos "family."
Against all odds, the film doesn't feel exploitative -- these Juggalos seem to welcome a chance to defend and celebrate their subculture. Filmmaker Sean Dunne shares his insights into how to shoot for "as unbiased a view as possible," and his take on what Juggalo culture says about America, in an interview below.
Viewer discretion advised: The following contains explicit language and some nudity.
The Atlantic: What inspired you to shoot the Gathering?
Sean Dunne: I got the idea about a year and a half ago, maybe a little before last year's Gathering. From the little that I knew about Juggalos I could see them being rich, colorful subject matter. Until that time I had mainly done portrait-type documentaries and I was looking for a project that took me out of my filmmaking comfort zone. For a lot of reasons this was well outside of my comfort zone. Then there was a ton of media attention for last year's Gathering, I guess because Tila Tequilla had some sort of incident. The press that I saw coming out of there seemed a little obvious and easy and often elitist. The Juggalos were being picked on by everyone and they had no say in the matter. It was at that point that I decided that I would attend the next Gathering and give them a voice and make something in the vein of Heavy Metal Parking Lot.
Was access an issue? You seemed well received by your interview subjects, who seem friendly and forthcoming on camera. Was it a challenge to connect to people?
Connecting with the Juggalos and getting them to open up on camera was surprisingly not an issue at all. I got the sense that they were anxious to be heard. None of the other media we saw there were actually speaking with Juggalos; they stayed by the stage instead and took pictures of them from afar, basically treated them like animals at a zoo. We got in there, spent most of our time deep in the campgrounds. When the Juggalos saw what we were doing and that they had a chance to speak their minds (or act like complete jackasses) on camera, they jumped at the opportunity. They would come up to us and ask to be interviewed. We were not at a loss for subjects; in fact, we had to turn some people down.
The larger conversation in reviews of the film, and among commenters online, has revolved around what Juggalo culture says about America, whether it’s a counterpoint to Burning Man, or a symbol of an empire in decline. Do you see a larger lesson or revelation in the film?
I think it's a little early to say exactly what the larger meaning is or if this will serve as evidence of the collapse of our civilization. I can tell you that being there opened my eyes to some things that are going on in American that I wasn't quite aware of. It was shocking how many of them didn't have phone numbers or addresses when they were filing out the release forms. I heard so many stories about how they were between houses or had just been kicked out or evicted. Heartbreaking stuff. Like it or not, this is a growing segment of society. Shit is really crazy out there right now. It's really easy to sit there and make fun of these people in the media; it's even easier to pretend they don't exist. For this I wanted to present these people in their own words, good or bad, however depressing or funny it might be.
Your documentary style is often described as “cinematic.” Are there any filmmakers or films in particular that have influenced your work?
When I first approached my director of photography, Hillary Spera, about this project I told her I wanted it to be Heavy Metal Parking Lot meets Koyaanisqatsi. She got it right away. So for this film those were hugely influential. Besides that I'm a big fan of the work of Craig Baldwin, Ross McElwee, the Maysles brothers, Errol Morris and a bunch of other doc guys. I really like the movie Election -- might be one of the best ever. I could go on forever about this stuff, but I won't because it could get very boring, very quickly.
The film begins with two minutes of atmospheric slow motion footage and music. It immediately forces the viewer to see a crass subculture in a new light. Was this a conscious strategy? How did you develop the visual style of the piece?
While we were shooting I made sure we took plenty of time to just shoot the crowds, to be a fly on the wall and capture them behaving as they would had there been no camera present. When my editor, Kathy Gatto, and I started building the open we focused on trying to take something that to most people would register as ugly and offensive and make it look beautiful, captivating and somewhat hypnotic. We knew the open would make or break the film. You're already asking a lot of your audience to sit with this kind of subject matter for so long; it was crucial that we had them hooked from the first frame.
The overall visual style was based on two things: first, that we took a deliberate, composed approach and thus contradict what the audience expects from a documentary -- especially with this type of subject matter. Second, we had to shoot in a way that didn't come off as too heavy handed in influencing the audience. To accomplish that, we decided that one of our cameras would remain on a wide 18mm lens, giving the viewer as unbiased a view as possible. The second camera would be used for cutaways and close ups, but the idea was to have this feel as if it were presented without commentary. For that reason we used fewer tight shots than I normally do in my films.
What’s next for you?
Lots. Most of which I'm not going to discuss with a publication that reaches so many people. But I have a lot left in the tank. Keep checking www.veryapeproductions.com for updates.
For more films by Sean Dunne, visit http://veryapeproductions.com/.