The initial impression of the World Premier of Billy Corben and rakontur's new documentary Square Grouper, a chronicle of South Florida marijuana smugglers in the 70's and 80's, was that attendance was a bit sparse. Clearly Austin hasn't heard whom Billy is rolling with these days.
Corben himself joked during his introduction that his Bar Mitzvah was better attended. (In actuality the premier had a rather robust attendance, the premier was located in a 600 seat makeshift theater in the bowels of the Austin Convention Center, the second largest venue at SXSW film. The film's 150 crowd of attendees would have easily sold out any other smaller venue.) Those in attendance were treated to what is Corben's most impressive effort to date.
It would be easy to simply label Square Grouper as "Cocaine Cowboys for weed." And while both documentaries explore the South Florida drug scene during it's height, they are starkly different films in tone and pacing. Corben's trademark frenetic, hyper-stylized, and sharply edited narratives featured in Cocaine Cowboys and The U was exchanged for a more laid back, character study exploration (though still deftly edited) of the pot scene, accompanied by a phenomenal DJ Le Spam score.
Much like the fast pace of Cocaine Cowboys was the perfect style for a documentary about blow, the easy going tone of Square Grouper was reminiscent of a chilled out, reefer enhanced day in the sultry Florida sun.
Square Grouper's three separate weed smuggling rings were affable and engaging. While the subjects in Cocaine Cowboys had a wealth of unbelievable stories they were largely unsympathetic, violent crime being a necessity of the coke trade. Heavy emphasis was placed on the fact that all of those featured in Square Grouper were non-violent criminals, thus forging emotional bonds, if not outrage at the smugglers' sentencing, especially when telling the story of the Black Tuna Gang member Robert Platshorn, America's longest serving prisoner convicted on Marijuana Charges.
Platshorn and the rest of the Black Tuna Gang's story made up the moral core of the film while the Ethiopian Zion Coptic Church, a Star Island based Ganja focused Evangelical Christian Church eventually evolved to controlling Jamaica's drug trade, provided levity for the film. However, it was the story of Everglades City, the rural town with a population of 500 whose towns men turned to smuggling when their fishing licenses were taken away, which really struck an emotional chord with the audience.
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Overnight the low income town was flooded with wealth, though the unfamiliarity and brazenness with which the town treated its newfound opulence proved to be it's downfall. The majority of the townsmen were incarcerated on federal charges of upwards of ten years.
Surprisingly, the interviews with the townspeople, many smugglers, were not filled with anger over their arrests but rather wistful nostalgia for some of the most exciting days of their lives. When a former smuggler ends the film with a cover of Jimmy Buffett's "A Sailor Looks at Forty," the film subtly shows how little progress America made in drug policy in the past thirty years.
Never overtly political, Corben through his breezy exploration, questions a system that makes Federal criminals out of gregarious, loving individuals, and in turn, scores his biggest triumph.