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INDIEWATCH: Director’s take on ‘White Right’ feels personal

In "White Right: Meeting the Enemy," documentary filmmaker Deeyah Khan interviews Jeff Schoep, commander of the National Socialist Movement.

Deeyah Khan goes where she’s afraid to go. In the documentary “Jihad,” she examines radicalism. She taps into honor killings in “Banaz: A Love Story,” which earned an Emmy and a Peabody. “White Right: Meeting the Enemy” is her exposé on neo-Nazis and fascists in the U.S.

The impetus: Khan received hate mail calling for her death and rape after the airing of a BBC interview where she urged solutions to race wars. “White Right” is personal, and Khan’s presence, her questions and interactions are a narrative device and a palate cleanser because this one’s tough to watch.

Khan inserts a shot of her bewildered expression as she walks among men throwing up Nazi salutes with confederate flags and Ku Klux Klan regalia during the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Va.

More than rallies, “White Right” expertly traces the psychology of recruitment, the fear and the soldier-like training (see: mace in the face). Khan also captures humanity, hers and theirs, in juxtaposition of aggressive images of her sources to the founder of a white supremacist magazine asking if his hair is OK. A KKK grand dragon playing with his cat. The PR director of the National Socialist Movement greeting her with “ma’am.”

By inserting these tiny, relatable moments, Khan seems to communicate her own surprise.

She also makes clear her struggle.

As a man packages racist letters, she’s unrelenting in her steady questions. “Do you know why I think it’s wrong? Can you tell me,” she asks.

“Because I’m going to hurt the feelings of thin-skinned individuals that can’t realize the fact that it’s a piece of paper. … I can’t control feelings,” he said.

“You could control it by not doing it.”

“I guess I could control it, but I choose not to.”

In another scene, she reads her hate mail and shares her experience with racism with Jeff Schoep, commander of the NSM. “People who you represent made a 6-year-old child feel hated and unwanted and unwelcome and ugly.” His eyelids flutter; his nostrils flare.

She’s always calm, patient and persistent, like she’s sincerely trying to reconcile something stirring within her. And that spreads to the viewer.

Khan’s lens is straightforward and capably varied, but it’s later that she uses her camera for visual metaphor.

“When I see guys still active in the movement, I see suffering, I see individuals that have been through hell and that have been through all sorts of trauma,” said former neo-Nazi Arno Michaelis. “It's so much easier to say, ‘I hate Jews and (expletive)’ than it is to say, ‘I’m afraid.’ I'm afraid nobody's going to like me like me, I'm afraid I’m not worthy of being loved. That's by no means an excuse for that behavior, but it is a reason.”

There’s an off-center, side shot of Michaelis’ face. Behind him, much of the frame is a dark garage, and he’s peering outside toward the sun. Khan’s lens is relaxed, and another side of her skilled gaze is peeking through.

There are times in “White Right” where you wonder if much of her personal story is warranted, but there’s no other way. It’s the human connection that elicits change; that’s Khan’s message. And her actions prove she’s willing to live it.

Grade: A

“White Right: Meeting the Enemy”

Starring: Deeyah Khan, Brian Culpepper, Jeff Schoep

Director: Deeyah Khan

Time: 55 minutes

Rating: R

Available: Netflix Instant

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Melinda Lavine is a features reporter for the News Tribune.