Raiders!: The Story of the Greatest Fan Film Ever Made
(USA, 95 min.)
Dir. Jeremy Coon, Tim Skousen
Film geeks, rejoice! This strange but true documentary tells the story of three friends who literally made their childhood a Hollywood blockbuster. Raiders!: The Story of the Greatest Fan Film Ever Made revisits the adventure in which Chris Strompolos, Eric Zala, and Jayson Lamb decided to make a shot for shot (ish) remake of Steven Spielberg’s Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981). The film chronicles their seven-year production that began when they were eleven years old, spanned summer holidays and weekends throughout their school years, and defined their youth.
Their film Raiders of the Lost Ark: The Adaptation became a cult hit, and this doc offers a spiritual sequel and grand finale to a childhood dream. It’s one thing to make a blockbuster-scaled adventure, but it’s another feat to do it with a schoolkid’s allowance. The excerpts of the film that appear in the doc ring with the unabashed cheesiness of a typical adolescent game shot on a parent’s camcorder, but this take on Raiders comes to life with the collective spirit of the kids. Raiders! is a love letter to any film buff who grew up with a stack of VHS tapes in the basement and an endless thrill for escapism.
As is the case with many modest productions, the kids’ Raiders was never completed. The kids, now adults, recall how they shot everything from Indy’s sprint from the rolling boulder to the finale with the melting faces, but they never made the tricky runway sequence with the exploding airplane. The doc reunites Strompolos and Zala as they decide to complete the film and blow a life-sized airplane to smithereens with DIY pyrotechnics. They might be older, but they’re still kids at heart.
Strompolos and Zala pursue the project with gusto. Lamb, however, isn’t in the picture. The filmmakers reveal some on-set rifts during the initial production of the Raiders adaptation where Lamb’s eccentric behaviour proved difficult on the shoot. They simply don’t want him mucking up the final shots now that the stakes are high and Raiders is more than just a boyhood lark.
The doc captures the bitter divide between the wannabe-Spielbergs as the directors interview Lamb, who recalls a much different atmosphere on the set. His perspective is one of the unsung hero, the weird A/V club guy who did all the work behind the scenes without the same measure of praise that his collaborators received for their onscreen (and therefore more visible) work. Lamb eventually returns to the project in a peripheral role, but the doc conveys how showbiz and filmmaking inevitably bring a clash of egos as competing visions shape a collective work.
Raiders! shows the spirit of independent filmmaking alive and well as Strompolos and Zala raise funds to complete their film while juggling the responsibilities of adulthood. Zala especially confronts the complicated reality that independent filmmakers often need to work full time jobs to fund their passion projects. The film develops a subplot in which he battles his boss for more time away from work as rain and technical details delay the shoot. Few grown-ups have the luxury to leave their desks and fulfill their dreams, and the doc captures a sense of stunted adolescence that thrives within fandom as Zala prioritises this amateur production over a career that provides for his family.
The escapist element of Raiders! gives the story its substance as interviews with the filmmakers reveal their inspiration for committing themselves to this project for over seven years. The boys come from families with domestic trouble and the doc shows how they used the original shoot as a getaway from their parents’ divorces. Similarly, the parents who appear in the doc add that the film offered the boys an outlet that eased their situation. Boys will be boys, the film shows, as fires rage and kids dangle from speeding cars during summers of cinematic irresponsibility.
The film is at its strongest, though, when Coon and Skousen tap into the flurry of excitement that Raiders generates when it becomes a phenomenon and extends beyond the boys. Through interviews with filmmakers like Eli Roth and programmers at the Alamo Drafthouse, Raiders! explains how the amateur video circulated through pass-along VHS piracy as film geeks made copies of the adaptation and loaned the movie to friends. The film illustrates the making of a cult phenomenon as Raiders morphs into an unseen legend. The lore of the film and the circumstances of its production become akin to an urban legend as die-hard film geeks share the tale of three kids who mirrored the master of American escapism. The project finally explodes at an all-day film festival at the Alamo Drafthouse where it outbuzzes the second installment of Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings franchise and movie geeks see the full realisation of fandom on the big screen. The story of Raiders of the Lost Ark: The Adaptation is better than the footage of the film itself that appears in the documentary, but one cannot help but watch with a smile as the pure magic of movies resonates onscreen.
Raiders!: The Story of the Greatest Fan Film Ever Made is now playing in select theatres from Films We Like.