Roger Ebert once called cinema “a machine that generates empathy.” He explained, “It lets you understand a little bit more about different hopes, aspirations, dreams and fears. It helps us to identify with people who are sharing this journey with us.” It’s a quote I (and many others) return to often because it is so remarkably insightful & concise, but I don’t think it’s ever more true than it is with documentaries. Documentaries have a way of taking a subject that seems so odd or quaint from the outside & establishing the all-too-relatable, often devastatingly depressing humanity within. While a memeified YouTube clip or local news segment can reduce someone to a modern day freak show (think “Hide your kids, hide your wife” or “Ain’t nobody got time for that”), documentaries have the luxury of digging deeper beyond that detached amusement & fascination. Suddenly someone you might mock for dedicating their life to worshiping the minor pop star Tiffany or donating their penis to a museum while still alive & breathing is revealed to be a real, living person you can’t help with empathize with on some level after being confronted with their humanity.
Finders Keepers is smart in the way it consciously pulls off this trick. The film documents a bizarre case in which a small town “entrepreneur” purchases a barbecue grill from a storage unit auction only to find a human foot inside. Instead of returning the foot to its original “owner” (John Wood), the foot’s new warden (Shannon Whisnat) decides to make a media circus out of the ordeal & initiates a years-long public legal battle over the foot in order to capitalize on the minor fame it affords him. He brands himself as “The Foot Man” & charges admission to see the grill he discovered it in as a kind of morbid roadside attraction. Local news affiliates eat up Whisnat’s snake oil greedily & openly, unashamedly refer to the fiasco as a “freak show”. The film portrays the early goings on with a lighthearted “Get a load of this!” attitude that lures the audience into joining in with the gawking, lest they cast the first stone. However, the empathy machine eventually revs up & things take a very sour turn.
What at first seems like a thin story for a feature length documentary is later revealed to be something fairly nuanced & sinister. Whisnat was not only making a mockery out of a lost limb (which would honestly be bad enough in itself), but also a familial tragedy. Wood lost his foot in the same airplane crash that killed his father. The recovery from this unexpected devastation sent the deceased man’s surviving family into a spiral of abuse, addiction, stagnation, and estrangement. Where Whisnat saw an opportunity for fame & financial exploitation in an accidentally discovered foot, Wood saw a physical manifestation of grief he couldn’t process in a healthy, productive way. Even more fascinating yet, the two men had a history together as children that raises issues like petty jealousy & class politics in a documentary that initially purports to be about something much smaller & more unassuming: a foot. Finders Keepers is eager to surprise at every turn with just how complex & uncomfortable this story can get when it’s initially treated as nothing ore than a joke by the public & the media.
I missed catching Finders Keepers (among several other promising-looking documentaries) at last year’s True Orleans Film Festival, which is an opportunity I’m sad to have squandered. Watching the film with a live audience seems like it’d be a great venue for appreciating what it delivers, since its M.O. is to make you laugh, then make you feel bad for laughing, then make you laugh through the pain. It’s been a while since I’ve seen this keen of an observation on the exploitative nature of media coverage & the memeification of human beings and although the film holds up really well as afternoon Netflix viewing, I’d love to have experienced this particular empathy machine at work with a room full of strangers. I imagine the delight & discomfort would’ve both been palpable.