Documentary Flick: Square Grouper
by Brett sokol
“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.
PHOTOGRAPHS BY MATEO GARCIA (PORTRAIT); COURTESY OF RAKONTUR (STILLS)