Raiders!: The Story Of The Greatest Fan Film Ever Made Dir. Jeremy Coon, Tim Skousen

[Drafthouse Films; 2016]

Styles: documentary
Others: American Movie, Burden Of Dreams

It’s been a tough few years for film fandom. While it should be a golden age — with various nerd properties hitting theaters and enjoying critical and commercial success — for a particular subset of the culture, that success has spoiled into something darker. Other outlets have written about this (in particular, Birth.Movies.Death. and The A.V. Club) covering how a (very vocal) portion of fandom has turned into an entitled and threatening bunch, affixing their identities to various studio properties and attacking those who don’t share their views. It’s easy, with this loud minority issuing threats and insults to dissenters, to forget that fandom can be a source of positivity. After all, many creators start out as fans themselves.

That link between fandom and creativity is the centerpiece of Raiders!: The Story Of The Greatest Fan Film Ever Made, a documentary that’s both a much-needed response to the negativity that permeates current discussions around fandom, and a reminder that being a fan of something can be an exhilarating source of personal and artistic growth. Directed by Jeremy Coon and Tim Skousen, Raiders! recounts how in 1981, three 11-year-old friends decided to remake Steven Spielberg’s Raiders Of The Lost Ark without the benefit of formal training, a budget, or even a video copy of the film. Chris Strompolos, Eric Zala, and Jayson Lamb spent every holiday break and summer for seven years working on this project, defying common sense by taking on the recreation of one of the most expensive blockbusters ever made by one of the most talented filmmakers ever. Unfortunately, there was always one scene that they couldn’t recreate: the fight in front of the airplane that eventually explodes. Now, years later, with the aid of private backers and a Kickstarter, can they pull it off? And, if they do, what happens when they return to the intense, creative world they’d left behind so long ago?

Raiders! is a great story because, while the project it chronicles is incredibly unique, the impetus is widely relatable. Most people probably haven’t been as involved with their object of fandom as closely as the three young boys who followed Spielberg’s blueprint for as many years as they did. But a lot of folks are inspired to recreate things they love, be it drawing a comic that’s close to a tracing of their favorite issue, or making short films in the spirit of another they love, or covering songs while learning how to play an instrument. The film is also remarkable in how it often feels like a detailed snapshot of growing up within a particular socioeconomic group. These were boys of divorced or broken homes, without father figures, left mostly alone while mothers earned a living. Raiders! follows the boys not just as the gang that made the film but also young adults and, finally, grown-ups who have had their share of betrayals, setbacks, and problems. Their “glory days” were spent recreating Tunisian deserts and Nazi antagonism, and it’s clear that it holds a strong spot for each of them still, many years and accomplishments later.

Unfortunately, as compelling as this story is, Raiders! itself is undone by its structure, undercutting its own emotional momentum at every turn. Running concurrently with the background information is the airplane scene shoot: intercut between archival footage and interviews, Eric and Chris try to complete the scene and put a cap on their dream. It makes sense, on paper, why directors Coon and Skousen did this: it breaks up the linear storyline into a more complex tale, and highlights the contrast between the never-say-die attitudes of these scrappy teens and the adult world of filmmaking. The problem is that every time there is any emotional momentum to either timeline, the film cuts away to the other. Just when we learn about a falling out that happened many years ago, the film goes back to another rained out day on the airplane set. It’s an underwhelming presentation that does a disservice to the stories being told.

Raiders! is an interesting beast. It’s a poorly made film about an intrepid group of kids that… well, to be fair, made a poorly made film. That fan film rose to mythic proportions because of the dedication it took to spend so many years to see the completion (or near completion) of a dream. The story itself is a fascinating ode to childhood ambition and a specific time in America. But the storytelling is too sloppy and doesn’t understand where the emotional punches actually land within the tale it’s trying to tell. So in the end, it’s a mixed bag of an intriguing yarn Trojan Horse-d inside of poor execution. But who knows? This documentary might inspire the next group of kids to remake a film, or to launch their own filmmaking careers, or to become film reviewers. You never know what will inspire someone; you only hope to leave an imprint of your life somewhere. These kids and their Raiders remake took fandom to new heights, it’s just a shame that the film of their lives doesn’t reach those same levels.

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