Since 2017’s notorious “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, VA, everybody wants to make a movie about white supremacists. Taika Waititi made one. Terrence Malick made one. Christian Petzold made one. Spike Lee, characteristically, made the most pointed one, ending BlacKkKlansman with a smash cut to real footage of the carnage in Charlottesville. But as these filmmakers mythologize the past in order to warn about history repeating itself, the narrative of the present is actively being rewritten by the “alt-right” (or as they’ll be referred to here, Nazis) in an effort to cover their tracks and obfuscate the truth. “We disavow Nazism” or “we’re nonviolent,” the Nazis say; there were “very fine people on both sides,” the president says.
With this in mind, the threat that Charlottesville confronts us with is a subject perhaps best suited for documentary, a form that at least aspires to convey a more concrete sense of “truth.” And I posit that the most definitive and vital documentary about Charlottesville (as well as Neo-Nazism more broadly) is the almost hour-long YouTube video Charlottesville: The True Alt-Right, made by the popular video essayist known only as Shaun.
Because today’s Nazis tend to be extremely online as a recruitment strategy, plenty of footage exists of the event by way of various live streams (some extant, some since deleted) filmed by the Nazis themselves. In The True Alt-Right, Shaun’s mission statement is simple: We should look at it. “You can’t get more truthful than a direct video of the event, after all,” he says. Working in a uniquely 21st-century form of found footage, Shaun pieces together on-the-ground footage, after-the-fact interviews, still images, and text from the police report to construct a full and unflinching picture of the day’s oft-disputed events.
For the first half of the video, Shaun introduces “his cameramen” of intersecting Nazi streamers and traces their advancement into Charlottesville’s Emancipation Park, alternating between dynamic ground-level video footage and a flat, birds-eye view of the obviously flawed police action plan. This contextualizes the Nazis’ increasingly violent actions against counterprotestors, as last-minute changes to the plan sent them marching into the exact wrong location — the designated counter-protest zone — with no police escorts or intervention policy for when conflicts arose.
Shaun parses these dense bureaucratic documents and cryptofascist character constellations with his trademark droll, sardonic narration, which makes for a strangely compelling and often amusing experience. This is a big part of his appeal as a video essayist. (I’m partial to the moment when he introduces Mike Enoch, host of the podcast The Daily Shoah, as “a lovely chap” after a bit of a pause.)
Most of Shaun’s work is visually sparse by design. He’ll occasionally display text that the viewer can read along with his narration, but often his videos will rest on a static image of a skull wearing sunglasses over a dull grey background, leaving it to his dulcet tones to hold the viewer’s attention. Charlottesville, however, is energized by a strong sense of visual language.
The best examples of this can be found in the middle section, when Shaun reads over still images of police documentation as the Nazi cameramen and the counterprotestors gradually find themselves in greater conflict. Although no act of violence or moment of unrest is commented on directly, the viewer’s attention is continually drawn by the busyness of the visuals, with skirmishes often breaking out just beneath the still images or at the very edge of the frame.
The video Shaun works with here is extremely low-res, captured on always-in-motion smartphones in broad daylight and constantly compressed by limited live stream upload speeds. The images are blurry, pixelated, and sometimes datamoshed to hell. No artistic choices were happening in the creation of this footage, but the spartan, handheld quality is accidentally perfect, capturing the ugliness of an infamous day when digital hate found corporeal form and shed real blood. It’s the most visceral artifact of what happened there that we’re ever likely to have.
Shaun’s approach also allows him to play a game of “Spot the Swastika (or Swastika-Adjacent Iconography),” the vast array of which on display here debunks the post-hoc Nazi talking point (parroted by Donald Trump) that not all of those people were white supremacists. They were — or at the very least, they were content to join forces with them. “The acceptable amount of Swastika flags at the rally,” Shaun says, “would be zero … If you’re willing to walk under a Nazi flag with a bunch of Nazis and make no effort to disagree with them or counter the things they say, then you’re a Nazi.”
In the final stretch of Charlottesville: The True Alt-Right, Shaun provides a rhetorical analysis of the dialogue recorded on these streams, which should dispel any lingering doubts regarding exactly what these people hope to achieve. Before presenting a four-minute montage of the conversations these Nazis have in private, he utilizes a technique unique to YouTube as a medium: He invites his viewer to skip forward to a certain time-stamped moment if they’d prefer not to experience an uninterrupted onslaught of hate speech. Skipping this, however, would mean missing the most mask-off moment of the entire project: a man leading a call-and-response of “Gas the k*kes, race war now!” The man calls this “the first precept of the true alt-right.”
This video should serve as a wake-up call for people to understand just how seriously to take the reemergence of Nazism in America, especially as they continually attempt to rehabilitate their image. “This is exactly how we should remember these people,” Shaun says in the final minutes. Charlottesville: The True Alt-Right stands as a testament to that memory.
As arts communities around the world experience a time of challenge and change, accessible, independent reporting on these developments is more important than ever.
Please consider supporting our journalism, and help keep our independent reporting free and accessible to all.