I generally avoid things that are painful. I don't watch horror movies. I don't watch the news. And I don't watch documentaries about painful topics, unless there's some element of change intertwined (e.g. Pipkin's One Peace at a Time). I like documentaries which are long interviews with Henry Miller, or Judith Butler, documentaries in which the subject seems to be just as in control as the documentarian.
I was once almost made the subject of a documentary in which the intention was satirize my position. The film-makers intentions were made clear when they discussed a documentary they admired. I had never seen this documentary, but they made it clear in discussion they admired them for exploiting their subjects; that is, the documentarian understood how the subjects would appear to viewers and encouraged them to be caricatures of themselves. They also had told us of plans they had to do the same to a Christian cult in California.
I was browsing some documentaries and saw the title and bare bones description of America's Most Hated Family, but I wondered if it would be this same method. So I found a description on Wikipedia, and in turn looked at your entry, which contained this quote attributed to you:
"...setting out to discover the genuinely odd in the most ordinary setting. To me, it's almost a privilege to be welcomed into these communities and to shine a light on them and, maybe, through my enthusiasm, to get people to reveal more of themselves than they may have intended. The show is laughing at me, adrift in their world, as much as at them."
And I hoped that it was true, and I hoped for more than that and I watched your film.
I honestly felt you respected and loved the Phelp family, not for their values naturally, but for their kinship to you as humans. It was wonderful to see someone approach such a delicate relationship, that of the Phelps and the world, so carefully, but honestly.
In other comments on the forum I see that not everyone sees this in your film making. But I thought that you were a participant in the documentary. You didn't allow us to see only their worst. You allowed us to see their worst in the light of their best. You made it clear to them how a sympathetic world and how an unsympathetic world viewed them. They weren't victims of a documentary. I think it's important that you hear that, because I imagine you hear to the contrary often enough.
Hopefully film watchers will see themselves in the Phelps. Hopefully you have not only been a kind documentarian, but you've shown some of your viewers that their hatred and condemnation of the Phelps sins (or anyone else your viewer don't like for that matter) only contributes to a relationship of hatred. And that you, who stated your differences with regularity, who were embedded with their family if only for a short period, who came to film them because they were odd, that you loved them and wanted to protect them from their hate. That differences can be expressed with out hatred being part of the equation.
I just can't say enough about how well you handled such sensitive subject matter. Thanks. I look forward to watching more of your work, and I hope it is all as inspiring.