News clips of angry people brandishing torches have become commonplace. They converge on city streets and small town squares, their faces red with anger, veins popping in their necks and foreheads. When I see them, I wonder—who are these people? I do not recognize them, and yet they’re mine, Americans like me. How did we get to this place?
In Shenandoah, Pulitzer Prize-winning photographer David Turnley becomes producer and director in a documentary that attempts to answer this question. Shenandoah offers an intimate portrait of a small Pennsylvania coal town struggling with the economic downturn and a growing immigrant population. The film follows the town through community events and interviews of townspeople as they contend with a recent crime in what is otherwise a “very close knit,” “very safe” community. As far as this crime is concerned, there seems to be little doubt of guilt, but the question of consequence remains unresolved. Turnley creates an uncomplicated and trusting space where the people of coal country can spell out their wish, with sincerity and serenity, to make America great again.
Turnley introduces us to the protagonists in their bedrooms. We meet these high school boys surrounded by their football trophies and sitting on their modest twin-sized beds. It’s a true credit to Turnley that the boys trust the camera and are incredibly candid with him. They admit freely that they thought they’d be protected when they told their “little story,” and didn’t think anything would come of their actions. These are boys that completely embody the wide-eyed innocence of children in a small town. Their harmless, boy-next-door nature is undercut as we learn the gravity of their offense; these boys chased down and beat a man to death.
The victim, Luis Lopez, was an undocumented Mexican, living in Shenandoah with his American fiancé. In most crime documentaries, the victim earns and takes the center of the narrative. While Turnley does spend time with Lopez’s family, friends, and fiancé, even visiting his hometown in Mexico, his life is not a focus of the film. It’s important enough that he had a life and people who loved him. Anything more would be a distraction. Lopez deserved to live.
Instead Turnley finds the grainy detail of the other lives being lived and lost in Shenandoah. We meet the football mom who is working the third shift at the pierogi factory and the coach who so desperately wants to make upstanding men out of his young players. The team cannot seem to win. The town cannot seem to win.
Throughout the documentary, Turnley’s skill as a photographer is apparent. Every image is shot with great care and attention to detail, with imagery as dramatic as the truths people are willing to admit. There’s the town donut shop, which has lost the D on it’s sign so it reads “onut Shop;” the tiniest football player ever skips passed sloping row houses, and the young perpetrator reflects on his impending trial as he dons a white knight costume for his role in the school play. “The good thing about all this is that I’ve discovered theater,” he says.
If Lopez were not an undocumented Mexican, would he still be alive? Should these boys be punished for what they did? It’s one thing to know the answer to this question in your heart—to want to scream it until your face goes red and your voice gives out. Turnley gives us these marchers and demonstrations too, but only after we’ve spent time with both opposing factions. Turnley forces us to consider how much both sides of Shenandoah have on the line in this case—their entire lives.
Many in the community recognize that it is white privilege that allows them to even make an argument for these young men. The beauty of Shenandoah comes with watching someone else form his or her own painful conclusion.
The philosopher Edmund Burke identified moral imagination as the idea that our moral compass and sense of ethics should expand beyond our own life experience and circumstances to embrace the dignity of others.
The triumph of this film is that viewers get a front row seat in the painful and slow germination of a town’s moral imagination. Turnley presents a 97-minute portrait of America that is an absolute must-see. The most painful and most accurate analysis of the predicament comes from Victor, Luis’s best friend, who speaks in heavily-accented English, “You can’t hate persons. You’re going to need them.” We’re all going to need each other.
Tovah Burstein is a state motto enthusiast who writes in a camper currently parked in Mesa, Arizona. She has a real job with a rare disease Foundation. She’s not some kind of #vanlife social media influencer. Her writing has appeared in MAKE, Defunct, Hobart, The Butter and the Chicago Reader, among others. Keep up with her travels via perpetualmotion.paulandtovah.c