FILM Have you heard the one about the hook-handed killer who stalks little kids deep in the woods? Filmmakers Barbara Brancaccio and Joshua Zeman met as adults, but they both grew up on Staten Island, hearing stories of a local boogeyman nicknamed Cropsey — campfire tales that took on more sinister shades when a girl with Down syndrome went missing in 1987. Turns out a lot of children vanished from Staten Island over the years. Was the urban legend real?
Brancaccio and Zeman’s fascinating documentary, Cropsey, is obsessed with answering this question. The film follows the recent trial of transient Andre Rand — convicted of that 1987 kidnapping and suspected by a fearful community of more terrible crimes. Was bringing Rand up on new charges the result of a witch hunt, or was justice finally being served? Cropsey, which considers layers of details (from circumstantial evidence to wild rumors), encourages the viewer to form his or her own opinion on the case. Along the way, there are visits to abandoned mental hospitals, discussions of Satanism, and glimpses of hidden histories stashed all over Staten Island.
As Brancaccio and Zeman worked on Cropsey, they became so involved with the material that they weren’t sure what to believe themselves. “We each had a viewpoint about whether [Rand] was guilty or innocent, and it switched during the middle of the filming,” Zeman recalls. “At times we didn’t know what to think. I think that’s something we wanted to convey to the audience. There was definitely enough doubt to go around.”
Unsurprisingly, given its subject matter, Cropsey is genuinely scary. (It’s attracted horror fans for that reason, including director Peter Jackson, who recently requested a copy.) “At times it’s part crime thriller, at times it plays like a narrative horror film,” Zeman says. “That was not an easy task — we really had to play with the tone [while editing] and figure out what kind of movie we wanted to make. Also, how do you make a documentary seem literally scary? Thing is, filming the movie, we were scared all the time. We weren’t creating an emotion that wasn’t there — we would come home from shooting and have nightmares.”
Rand, who communicated with the filmmakers from prison via a series of incoherent letters, hasn’t seen Cropsey — yet. In the meantime, fans of the doc can be assured the legend will live on: “We’re trying to work on a narrative remake of Cropsey,” Zeman says. “There was so much we couldn’t put in the doc, so rather than make Cropsey 2: Electric Boogaloo, we’re going to try and tell some other parts of the story in a narrative version.”
PARTY AT GROUND ZERO
Cropsey made its local debut at the 2009 San Francisco Documentary Film Festival; this year’s DocFest kicks off with Everyday Sunshine: The Story of Fishbone, codirected by San Franciscan Chris Metzler (2004’s Plagues and Pleasures on the Salton Sea). Sunshine, which Metzler made with Lev Anderson (Salton Sea co-helmer Jeff Springer served as Sunshine‘s cinematographer and editor), is a lively, revealing look at cult SoCal ska-punk rockers Fishbone.
Its formation — circa 1979, in a San Fernando Valley junior high newly filled with bussed-in South Central kids — is explored via animation, which is used periodically throughout the film. The film’s quirkier stylistic choices offer evidence that Sunshine was made by two guys who don’t like traditional music docs. It’s a label they resist because it could potentially limit the film’s audience.
“I find music documentaries kind of boring and formulaic,” admits Anderson, who worked on Taggart Siegel’s 2005 doc The Real Dirt on Farmer John. A lifelong music fan, his father took him to a Fishbone concert when he was 10 years old. “But I figured if you could make a music documentary that would be interesting, have good characters, have a good story, and be able to reflect on some larger cultural issues — I thought that would be the Fishbone story.”
Anderson, who met Metzler at a Salton Sea-era film festival party and pitched him the Fishbone idea on the spot, was confident the band would be an ideal subject. “I knew that we could interview just about anybody in popular music, from Ice-T to Mike Watt, Flea to George Clinton — I knew that those were all people who were aware of Fishbone in one way or another. The musical legacy they have is inspiring. If you’re going to do one music documentary, that’s the one, because you can talk to everybody.”
In addition to chatting with famous faces (and getting longtime Fishbone fan Laurence Fishburne to narrate), the filmmakers spent months on the road with the band, capturing the infectious energy of its live shows in addition to behind-the-scenes tension. Past members chime in, but the main protagonists are bassist-vocalist Norwood Fisher and lead vocalist-saxophone player Angelo Moore. Their intertwining stories offer a poignant portrait of creative soulmates who’ve weathered many storms (personality conflicts, legal and money troubles, an industry that didn’t know how to categorize them) without once giving up on their music.
Metzler sees Sunshine‘s appeal as extending beyond Fishbone fans, or even music fans. “We’re hoping that the people who come to see the film are the same sort of people who were attracted to the Salton Sea film,” he says. “People who want to watch an engaging, offbeat story about these eccentric personalities and their perseverance to do things their own way. The Fishbone story is an outsider tale about these guys who fit in everywhere — yet didn’t fit in anywhere, all at the same time.”
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