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If you haven't heard of Cocaine Cowboys by now, you haven't been paying attention. The infamous pop doc fired off archival footage and firsthand accounts of Miami's cocaine wars at a breathless machine-gun pace. But it wasn't the first flick produced and directed by Billy Corben and Alfred Spellman, the celebrated documentarians behind the Miami-based studio Rakontur, and it was far from the last. This week, O Cinema will honor the 34-year-old Miami chroniclers with a five-night retrospective of their first ten years of explosive documentary filmmaking.
"We love our city and we love supporting local artists, and there are no local filmmakers that are more prolific than Alfred and Billy," says O Cinema cofounder and Miami native Kareem Tabsch. "They're from Miami. They get Miami. Much like our city, their films are in your face. They're unapologetic. And even though they shine a light on the seedy underbelly of the city, I think it comes from a love of Miami."
Corben met the Miami Beach-born Spellman when his family moved to Miami when he was 3. A few years later, he met David Cypkin, who would become Rakontur's cofounder, coproducer, and editor. The three attended Highland Oaks Middle School, where Spellman and Corben began collaborating after a discerning teacher prodded them.
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"Sheila Spicer was a clever and inspiring woman who put Alfred and I together and gave us the keys to the studio, literally. We produced the TV news every morning, perhaps to the detriment of our other studies," Corben laughs.
The team's first film was an AIDS-awareness short called Waiting, produced to fulfill their high school's community service requirement. It followed a young woman anticipating the results of her HIV test. Local media covered the project, and the film was picked up by a major educational video production company and distributed nationwide. The filmmakers were 14 years old.
Nearly a decade later, in 2001, the duo embarked on their first documentary, Raw Deal: A Question of Consent, which explored the controversy of a possible rape caught on camera at the University of Florida, where friends of Corben and Spellman went to school. They took a leave of absence from their own studies to interview people on all sides of the story, weaving in disturbing footage from the actual party where the assault allegedly occurred. At Spellman's insistence, they also used digital video for the first time. "With cameras getting smaller and cheaper, it was sort of the dawn of the democratization of production," Corben says. The film went on to win accolades at the Sundance Film Festival that year, and the filmmakers gave a name to their partnership: Rakontur, meaning "skillful storyteller."
Soon the pair returned to Miami in search of a "calling-card project." Spellman, having read heaps of books about the era when cocaine was king of Miami, brought the foundation for Cocaine Cowboys to the table. His childhood observations had sparked a lifelong curiosity about the subject. "I remember South Beach as being an absolute pit," Spellman says. "I played little-league soccer at Flamingo Park in [the early '80s], and I remember my parents hustling me out of South Beach as quickly as possible. You would take your life in your hands to go to Joe's. South of Fifth was where a lot of the Mariel refugees had settled and turned it into a war zone."
When Corben's cousin stumbled across Jon Pernell Roberts, a onetime trafficker for Colombia's Medellín cartel, lounging poolside one day, it was on. Roberts connected Rakontur with trafficker Mickey Munday, and Spellman began writing letters to convicted Colombian hit men in prison. Corben and Spellman also credit as an influence and a leg up the investigative work of 1990s Miami New Times writers such as Jim DeFede.
They finished Cowboys in 2006, and it went on to the Tribeca Film Festival, a limited release with Magnolia Pictures, and eventual airings on Showtime. A sequel followed in 2008. Rakontur then released the high-profile The U, telling the story of University of Miami football in the 1980s and '90s on ESPN.
Since then, the pair has worked nonstop, releasing two titles last year alone. But 2012 is slated to be their most prolific. They're in postproduction on Cocaine Cowboys Remix and Dawg Fight, a graphic doc about brutal and illegal back-yard MMA fights fought for cash in a poor Miami neighborhood. They're also working with ESPN Films on Broke, a look at how pro athletes commonly squander their wealth through bad investments, obscenely high medical bills, and an insatiable desire to show off.
Though they plan to expand the scope of their raw, eye-opening films, Corben and Spellman have made it clear they're not snapping off their Miami roots anytime soon. "There aren't many cities in America that have such a wealth of material for us to pick from. Miami continues to be an inspiration for us every day," Spellman says.
Raw Deal will open O Cinema's retrospective Monday, March 26. The cast of Cocaine Cowboys will host a live Q&A Tuesday, March 27, after a showing of clips from the upcoming Cocaine Cowboys Remix. Wednesday, March 28, will feature a screening of Rakontur's Sundance-selected short, The Life and Freaky Times of Uncle Luke, followed by an extended version of The U, with special guests Luther Campbell and former Miami Hurricanes players. Square Grouper will screen Thursday, March 29, featuring cast member Robert Platshorn, who served a 30-year jail sentence, making him the longest-imprisoned nonviolent marijuana offender in history. And Friday's main event, hosted by Jim DeFede, will be a Q&A with the filmmakers where they'll show as-yet-unseen footage of their upcoming documentaries. Each night will feature a prescreening reception at 6:30 p.m. with food trucks and a cash bar. Screenings begin at 7:30, with panel discussions immediately following.
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