(“Raiders!: The Story of the Greatest Fan Film Ever Made,” has been a long gestating project for both the subjects and filmmakers of this fantastic doc. The film is available in theaters and on VOD starting Friday, June 17.)
For those in need of escapism, there’s nothing like the work of filmmaker Steven Spielberg to transport us away from our quotidian woes to a world of enchanting make-believe. We who grew up in the 1970s and 1980s can think of ourselves as much “Generation Spielberg” as Generation X, since movies like Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977), Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981) and E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial (1982) – not to mention Star Wars (1977) and its sequels, from Spielberg’s buddy George Lucas – all had an outsize influence on our cinematic sensibilities…especially if we were American, male and white, like the director, himself. Looking back at his films, it’s easy to see their cultural and racial limitations, but at the time, I just enjoyed them as brilliantly crafted entertainment that took me out of myself to someplace special. Though my sensibilities have since evolved far beyond the Spielbergian aesthetic, I am not ashamed to say that his movies are one of the main reasons I wanted to become a filmmaker (and, now, film critic).
Indeed, I was not alone. In their brilliantly engaging new documentary Raiders!: The Story of the Greatest Fan Film Ever Made, co-directors Jeremy Coon (Editor on Napoleon Dynamite) and Tim Skousen (Director, The Sasquatch Gang) tell the tale of two young boys in the 1980s – so, my contemporaries, more or less – who decided to remake, shot-for-shot, Steven Spielberg’s first Indiana Jones film. Chris Strompolos and Eric Zala met as 11-year-olds in Mississippi. One, the child of divorce and the other soon to be who each discover a shared passion for the same movie and a similar obsessive desire to recreate its magic in their own backyards. Soon, what had started as the project of their 1982 summer vacation became a seven-year saga to which they returned, time and time again, adding scenes here and there as time and money allowed. By the time they went off to college, what remained was a strange – yet utterly compelling – alternate-reality version of Raiders of the Lost Ark in which the characters age over the course of the story while the technology and craft improve.
And that would have been that, a forgotten treasure of youth packed away in a cupboard or basement somewhere, except that neither Strompolos nor Zala could ever quite escape their childhood dreams of filmmaking, even as the challenges of life pushed and pulled them together and apart on their separate journeys. What didn’t help them move on completely was the fact that the film was unfinished. For reasons both financial and technical, they were unable, as boys, to shoot one particular scene: the fight on and around the airplane, which culminates in a big explosion. As we join them, now in their 40s, each with their own adult responsibilities, they have decided to unite once more in cinematic harmony to finally shoot that lost scene. We watch as they raise money (through traditional solicitations as well as through Kickstarter) and slowly gather their old actors and crewmates (with some new additions) to complete their unfinished masterpiece.
If the idea of watching an amateurish version of a polished Hollywood film leaves you cold, then forget that part of the movie and approach this documentary as a testament to the power of childhood dreams and lifelong friendship. Whatever else they may be, both Strompolos and Zala are geniuses at bringing people together to work towards a common goal. That’s what they did as kids, and that’s what they do now. One of the most moving sights in the entire film is when Strompolos’ long-divorced parents stand, arm in arm, watching the airplane shoot unfold. Quixotic though the task may seem, if it can make others temporarily forget their differences and coexist in peace, that’s a beautiful thing.
As it turns out, though, it’s not just about tilting at windmills. Much as with the trajectory of the once-forgotten folk-rock musician Rodriguez, whose story was profiled in the Oscar-winning Searching for Sugar Man, Strompolos and Zala’s Raiders film, unbeknownst to the filmmakers, had garnered underground cult status and an ardent fan base over the years, thanks to a borrowed VHS copy of the film. Eventually, because of the efforts of diehard enthusiasts like film critic Harry Knowles and film director Eil Roth, the erstwhile collaborators were brought back for a sold-out screening of their forgotten folly, which helped rekindle their desire to finish the project. Especially now that they had an audience.
And so we have this particular documentary, which follows our now forty-something protagonists as they scrimp, sweat and save to show themselves, their families and their fans that they haven’t given up on their youthful aspirations. Did I mention that Strompolos plays Indiana Jones, and Zala (who also directs) plays Belloq? And that they’re actually quite good? It’s a sight to see. Dreams are a beautiful thing.
– Christopher Llewellyn Reed (@ChrisReedFilm)