Clear your schedule for two limited-run, don't-miss docs
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.