Miami’s most successful and well-known filmmaking crew is about to kick things up a notch.
Billy Corben and Alfred Spellman, founders of the media studio rakontur, made their initial media splash in 2001, when their controversial documentary Raw Deal: A Question of Consent, an exploration of a purported rape, premiered at the Sundance International Film Festival and made the cover of the New York Post.
Then came Cocaine Cowboys in 2006, a recounting of the early-1980s South Florida drug wars that convincingly argued that the backbone of Miami’s infrastructure was built on the cocaine trade.
That film earned Corben and Spellman, whose headquarters are housed in South Beach, a devoted cult following that grew with each successive film ( Limelight, Square Grouper, The U, Broke).
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So there’s a nice synchronicity to that fact that the filmmakers, along with co-founder David Cypkin, have returned to the movie that blew up their careers at the same time they venture into new territory: The narrative documentary.
At 7:30 p.m. Thursday, the rakontur crew will be at O Cinema Wynwood to premiere Cocaine Cowboys Reloaded, an expanded and retooled version of the 2006 movie that features even crazier stories from Miami’s wild, wild west 1980s-era.
Coming this summer is Dawg Fight, which was shot over the span of two years, inspired by an article in the Miami New Times by Francisco Alvarado detailing the bare-knuckled, backyard-fighting culture that had sprung up in Perrine and gained popularity via YouTube videos.
Unlike rakontur’s previous films, which consisted of archival footage and interviews with people recalling the past, Dawg Fight begins as a portrait of a bruising culture, borne out of unemployment, economic depression and lack of hope, of friendly competition and rivalries, and of grudges that are settled the old-fashioned way, not with with bullets.
Instead of a comfortable studio and willing interview subjects, the filmmakers had to step into the action and shoot it as it happened — sometimes dealing with people who did not want to appear on film.
“The fighters were easy, because they were looking for publicity,” says Corben, who directed Dawg Fight. “But other people in the community weren’t as friendly. People who attended the fights were used to cameras being pointed at the ring. But now we had cameras everywhere — on the roof, on the street, on the training grounds — and that was disconcerting for some people, who might be smoking pot or gambling.”
Corben says by the time he and his crew filmed their third fight, the community felt more comfortable with them. He credits the Perrine police department for understanding that neighborhoods cannot be ruled by one single rule book. Each requires its own special handling and understanding.
“The whole thing for me culturally was like a street fair festival,” he says. “People would bring food and hang out. It was a festive affair. I really admire how the police handled the situation. It was legitimate community policing. You need to have some understanding and some latitude about the social reality of the community you’re policing. It’s street-smarts. You cannot protect every community the same way. You have to have a cultural sensitivity, and you have to be able to adapt. All people aren’t the same. You can’t police Sunset Island the way you would police Carol City. It’s not like they saw something illegal going on and ignored it. If they saw a crowd of people on the street, they cleared the street and at that point the job of the police was done. The fights were held on private property, and they had no idea what was going on there. If there had been a 911 call, they would have responded and gone into that backyard.”
Dawg Fight works on a number of levels: It’s a portrait of machismo and competition and an exploration of how poverty will drive men to do things they normally wouldn’t do (the losers of the fights got paid just like the winners, although considerably less). It’s also about how Cinderella stories sometimes really do come true.
But after a year of on-and-off filming, Corben and Spellman had amassed hours of footage with no discernable narrative, the risk documentarians take when they decide to document a culture without going in armed with a story.
“You could shoot a documentary forever, which is why they take so long to make,” Spellman says. “We’ve gotten spoiled by making historical docs, because you can map out the whole movie from A to Z. Dawg Fight was a new experience for us, because here you have to be at the right place and time when something great happens, or you miss it. And you also have to pore through hours and hours of footage to find a particular moment or story beat. It’s like searching for a needle in a haystack.”
Fortunately, a tale did emerge — four, in fact, ranging from triumphant to tragic. To reveal what happens in Dawg Fight would spoil the fun, but the movie marks a new high for rakontur, juggling multiple story arcs (including an unexpected Rocky tale) with a range of emotions and personalities that are different than anything in its previous body of work.
But although Dawg Fight proved to be a successful artistic gamble, the company is not forgetting the sort of film that has been the key to its success: the retrospective documentary. Cocaine Cowboys Reloaded contains enough new material — a lot of it truly stranger than fiction — to make it feel like a new movie instead of a polished retread with a few extra scenes thrown in.
“The story is the same, essentially,” says Cypkin, who edited Reloaded. “We did use the original film as the starting point. The idea was that there were so many stories in the original that branched out in different directions that we didn’t have the luxury to tell. We stayed true to our central theme — how Miami was built on cocaine — and everything else came out. This time around, we get to explore all those different roads.”
Although it runs two and a half hours, Reloaded moves just as quickly as the original, recounting crimes even more harrowing than those in the first film, such as the “Kendall Six” massacre, one of the worst mass murders in Miami history that remains unsolved; the Miami River Cops scandal, in which police officers stole cocaine from traffickers then sold it themselves; or the curious case of Barry Seal, a drug smuggler who flew flights for the CIA and the Medellín cartel.
“It was interesting to come back to this material and see what we did the first time when we were younger and a little less experienced and were making up our rules as we went along,” Cypkin says. “There’s certainly a technical level of proficiency that is much higher in the new cut. We’ve moved on to 3D computer animation and high-definition video. We had more time to experiment with the look of the film.”
“The energy that they have is infectious, and it comes across in their movies,” says Connor Schell, vice president of production for ESPN Films, which aired The U and Broke. “Their style is so frenetic, and their movies have such an interesting pace that when Billy pitched us on how they wanted to do The U [originally titled Hurricane Season], we bought into it immediately. We’ve had a great relationship with them. Their style is very innovative, and we’re talking to them about collaborating on another documentary now.”
Brad Abramson, vice president of original programming for VH1, says he was impressed by Corben and Spellman when they lobbied to direct the four-part miniseries The Tanning of America: One Nation Under Hip-Hop, which aired in February.
“They knew an incredible amount about hip hop for a couple of white Jewish kids from Miami,” Abramson says. “They blew us away with their knowledge of all the details and their love of the culture. They are a boutique company: They work on one project at a time and give it their all. We were aware of them from the Cocaine Cowboys days. They are the kings of the hidden anecdote. They know how to find just the right nugget to bring out.”
Although Dawg Fight has not found a U.S. distributor, Corben and Spellman are banking on their huge following on social media and the increasing multitude of release platforms to make the film available sometime this year.
“The distribution landscape has changed dramatically, and so many various models have emerged. We’re trying to figure out to distribute the movie directly to our fans,” Spellman says. “It’ll be a different plan of distribution for us that will allow us to reach our fans directly, who I think will specially like this title.”
One thing that has not changed, however, is the dynamic between the three rakontur founders, which is probably the real secret to their success.
“Filmmaking is like a band,” Spellman says. “Everyone has to play their own instrument and their own role in making a film. David has been editing our docs. Billy and I have a great partnership because we play off each other’s strengths. He directs, and I produce. When you look at other filmmaking teams, they all have a certain rapport. I think we’ve developed our own rhythm and style. We make a pretty formidable team.”