“We had no reason to know how to make a documentary,” laughs director Billy Corben, sitting poolside at Miami Beach’s The Raleigh with producing partner Alfred Spellman. “We still make it up as we go along.
"But we’re 32, we’re the old guys now!” quips Spellman. Pointing to the pair’s shared uniform of T-shirts and jeans, he adds playfully, “We even dressed up for this meeting!” There’s more than a little bravura on display as the duo reflect on their careers. And deservedly so. Working under the moniker of Rakontur, Miami’s own Corben and Spellman are no longer simply local boys made good. A decade on from their first feature-length documentary, Raw Deal: A Question of Consent, whose unsettling exploration of an alleged University of Florida frat house rape made them the toast of 2001’s Sundance Film Festival, the two are now the highest-profile figures on the homegrown filmmaking scene.
Members of the Ethiopian Zion Coptic Church inside their Star Island mansion
Their latest documentary, Square Grouper, mines the local marijuana-smuggling milieu of the late ’70s. “It’s that Jimmy Buffett-era of South Florida, before all hell broke loose,” explains Spellman. “After the ’50s and ’60s tourist boom, after the Rat Pack, you had this incredible collapse of South Florida as a tourist destination…. It’s the transition of Miami Beach to God’s Waiting Room.”
Square Grouper offers three discrete portraits. First we meet the hirsute hippie disciples of the Ethiopian Zion Coptic Church inside their Star Island mansion, chanting away at all hours, trailing thick clouds of pot smoke, which they deem their religion’s constitutionally protected sacrament. They’re also surreptitiously importing tons of marijuana from Jamaica via their own fleet of ships.
Corben and Spellman aren’t interested in lingering too long over the more cultlike aspects of the Church, with its zombie-like subservient women tending a flock of children and cooking away in the kitchen. “Close your eyes and it could be Anita Bryant talking,” remarks a 60 Minutes producer in an archival clip as one wife begins preaching the retrograde gospel.
Rakontur’s director/producer team, Billy Corben (LEFT) and Alfred Spellman
For a capper, the spotlight turns to Everglades City, a small village on the edge of Everglades National Park, whose fishermen embraced the weed trade fully, zipping in and out of the area’s mangrove labyrinths, scooping up the illicit square bundles whose nickname gives this film its title. In the end, a police dragnet sent 80 percent of its adult male population to prison. No criminal masterminds here, either: “I’m not a fugitive, I’m just Dave.”
Everglades City fishermen-turned-marijuana
smugglers, en route to prison
The contrast with the murderous thugs and sociopaths of Cocaine Cowboys—the duo's 2006 film about Miami's blood-soaked cocaine trade in the ’70s and early ’80s—is hardly subtle. This convinced Corben and Spellman to act as politicos as much as documentarians: They’ve been using Square Grouper’s nationwide screenings over the past month (as well as the publicity for its April 19 DVD release) to push a campaign of marijuana decriminalization.
Corben, who helped fund last year’s unsuccessful legalization referendum on Miami Beach, insists, “We need to start having a real conversation about drugs that actually kill people—like Oxycontin. We’re kicking in doors on grow houses in Kendall, but people are lined up around pill mills in Tallahassee like they’re serving Guthrie’s chicken wings.”
Spellman strikes a more hopeful note. “It feels like the mid ’70s, with medical marijuana now legal in California and Colorado,” he muses. “Jimmy Carter got elected on a decriminalization platform, then he got distracted by inflation, stagflation and the entire Iran hostage crisis. Thirty-five years later, we’re kind of in the same place we were in 1976, on the cusp of seeing a complete change in attitude.”
Indeed, the warmly romantic sheen Square Grouper drapes over its old-school smugglers is hardly accidental. “The drug and its effects really reflected the business, and dictated the types of people who were involved in it—as well as the level of violence.” Or the lack thereof. “We were dealing with mellow people,” Spellman chuckles.