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No weirder story will likely be told at this year’s Sundance Film Festival than Finders Keepers, a documentary portrait of two men locked in a contentious battle — over an amputated leg.
Premiering Tuesday in the U.S. Documentary competition, the stranger-than-fiction yarn — co-directed by Bryan Carberry and Clay Tweel — follows John Wood, a down-and-out North Carolina man whose leg was removed near the knee after a 2004 airplane crash. The accident took the life of his father, a successful executive at the Ethan Allen furniture company.
Upon being told by doctors that he likely would lose the leg, Wood envisioned a future memorial to his dad which would incorporate it. “He had a certain kind of sentimental attachment to the leg,” Tweel explains.
Wood cited “religious purposes” in order to keep the leg, but wrongly assumed the hospital would first strip the flesh from it. Instead, he was handed a garbage bag containing the mangled leg intact, only frozen solid.
“It actually said on the packaging not to let it thaw out,” Carberry says.
Wood abided, storing the leg in his freezer for several months. Realizing that wasn’t a long-term solution, however, he asked a friend at the local mortuary for some embalming fluid and set about preserving the leg himself. He then wrapped it in wire screening and hung it from a tree branch in a possum trap, where it air-dried, safe from the reach of hungry critters.
In the months following the accident, Wood turned to drugs and alcohol to cope with his pain and depression. That led to an eviction from his home, forcing him to place all of his belongings — including the leg, which he hid inside a barbeque smoker — in a storage locker. When he failed to pay the rental fee, the contents were put up for auction, which is where Shannon Whisnant, the winning bidder and the film’s other star, enters the story.
A larger-than-life “flea market entrepreneur,” Whisnant parlayed his gruesome discovery into a cottage industry. Over Wood’s pleas to return the leg, Whisnant re-branded himself as “The Foot Man,” leaving no stone overturned in pursuit of a quick buck. He even charged adults $3 and kids $1 to have a peek inside the (empty) smoker, and hawked “Foot Man” T-shirts at $15.95 a pop.
The bizarre custody battle made international headlines in 2007, during which both men even appeared on an episode of Judge Mathis, where a Solomonic ruling ordered the leg returned to Wood but denied him damages for pain and suffering. (More recently, Whisnant was arrested outside a Wells Fargo bank for brandishing a .38 caliber handgun.)
It was around then that Ed Cunningham, producer of 2011 Oscar winner Undefeated, began filming the two men for a future documentary. Tweel (director of last year’s award-winning Print the Legend) was an assistant to Cunningham at the time, and grew attached to the material after logging hours of footage.
Other projects distracted both filmmakers in the years to follow, but in 2012, Tweel proposed taking over completely. Cunningham agreed, and a Kickstarter campaign was mounted, raising $81,000 for the project. The final mix was completed just a few weeks before Sundance.
Though they admit to initially being drawn to the News of the World aspects of the story, both Tweel and Carberry insist the final product contains much more.
“It’s about learning to let go of things in your past in order to move forward emotionally,” says Tweel.
Adds Carberry, “The leg represents something different to everyone.”
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