This year’s documentaries make the case for movies that save your life

I don't believe that they are “just” movies.

I mean, sure, there are plenty of movies that I would consider inconsequential, and many of those are even movies that I like. But the entire culture of films, the idea of these shared narratives that make up something that unites people from around the world, is something that I think people dismiss too easily sometimes. Films are transformative. Films can force you to see things in a new ways. They can build or destroy communities. They can be powerful forces for social change, and they can shine a spotlight on things in a  way that is undeniable and immediate.

And, in their best moments, they can save lives.

Right now, “The Wolfpack” is making its way into theaters, a documentary about a family of young men, all raised by a domineering father who intentionally cut them off from the outside world. They were raised in near-total isolation, their only window on the world the movies they were allowed to watch. As they got older, they began to shoot their own versions of the films they saw, an exercise that seemed to be more about holding onto their sanity and their sense of identity while living a life that threatened to atrophy them in significant emotional and intellectual ways. There are many things at work in “The Wolfpack,” and while I found it unpleasant in many ways as a film, I think it's compelling, and it makes a real case for the way movies helped these kids. Then again, one of them ended up in a mental hospital after putting on a homemade Michael Myers mask and wandering the streets of New York one afternoon, so movies aren't the complete answer in terms of the healthy and happiness of those boys.

When I was at SXSW, one of the films I was most interested in seeing was “Raiders! The Story Of The Greatest Fan Film Ever Made,” a documentary by Jeremy Coon and Tim Skousen. After all, I was in the theater at BNAT when we all had that lightning bolt moment watching that grainy VHS copy of a copy of a copy of “Raiders Of The Lost Ark: The Adaptation,” the made-by-kids shot-for-shot reproduction of the Steven Spielberg classic. I suspected the documentary would be a beautiful testament to the way this process defined the childhood shared by Eric Zala, Jayson Lamb, and Chris Strompolos.

My reaction to the film was way more complicated than that, though. I think everything that has to do with the original shoot, back when the guys were kids, is gold, and while the story's been told in book form and I've heard many of these stories live and in person, there's nothing like actual footage from the making of this thing and footage of the kids growing up. What is clear is that all three of them were going through some pretty profound emotional turmoil, with divorce a major specter in their young lives. “Raiders” wasn't just a childhood lark; it was an act of emotional salvation, something they could lose themselves in at a time when they needed it desperately. They turned to each other and the family that you find in filmmaking, and even when it dragged on summer after summer and they had ups and downs as collaborators and/or friends, they came back because it filled some need for them. It was essential. It had to happen, just as the kids in “The Wolfpack” had to make their movies. They weren't for audiences, per se, but were instead acts of will, small but hard-fought moments of accomplishment that gave these kids power in their powerless lives. Creation, even if it's just recreation, is an act that requires so much of you that you can shut the world out during it, and that can be very powerful and even transformative.

What surprised me was how much I disliked everything else about the “Raiders!' documentary and why. The other half of the film deals with the much more recent attempt to shoot one final scene, the one scene that could not be reproduced by the kids, the fight on the Flying Wing runway. They ran a Kickstarter campaign to raise money, and Eric Zala and Chris Strompolos got together again. The childhood whimsy was, understandably, gone, but what replaced it was a sort of curdled delusion, especially on the part of Eric Zala. It's clear watching the film that what he wants from this final scene is the career that he feels has eluded him, and he's not going to be stopped by anyone or anything. I can certainly respect the drive and the focus, but what Zala seems to be almost intentionally ignoring is that no matter how well he pulls it off, what he's doing it still an act of imitation. Best case scenario: he perfectly apes the moves of Steven Spielberg. And if he doesn't mimic them perfectly, then he looks like he failed at his goal. It's a no-win scenario in terms of demonstrating who he is or who he can be as a filmmaker because the entire exercise is about someone else's voice.

Imitation is part of learning how to create. Many people start learning how to build something original by taking apart something else. If you go through one of your favorite films and you try to reproduce every shot, it forces you to think about every shot. It forces you to look at what something conveys, and it makes you think about how that image was created and what went into it. When I was 13, I visited the set of “Starman,” and I was given a copy of the shooting script by Ray Gideon and Bruce Evans to take home. It was the first script I ever read, and to learn how to use the screenplay format, I tried to reverse engineer it. I took the Bill Mantlo “Cloak & Dagger” mini-series that Marvel put out, and I went through page by page, panel by panel, writing it as a movie. I never had the slightest expectation anyone would even read it, much less than it was worth making. It was just an act of exercise, part of learning how to get to something that I could call mine.

If Eric Zala and Chris Strompolos had gotten together to Kickstart their first original film, or even a fun and clever Indy sequel that was all theirs, something that demonstrated who they are, then I could see that as being something worthwhile. But over the course of the shoot for the Flying Wing scene, it becomes clear that this is borderline obsessive behavior at this point, and nothing anything like the joy of childhood creation. When they finally film the big explosion, they nearly kill someone, and I am not exaggerating. There is a horrifying moment when their demolitions “expert,” who had never rigged anything for film before, walks up to examine the misfired explosives, and the blast goes off late, throwing him several yards and slamming him to the ground, out cold, not breathing. It is the kind of horrible half-assed behavior that killed Sarah Jones, and in this case, the reason they're shooting that scene offends me even more in the context of hurting someone. When they make safety mistakes as kids and almost burn down a house, it's thrilling and a little bit charming, and you're glad to see that they get this remarkable footage out of it. But as adults? Who are still asking people to do things for free and who are still treating the shooting of genuinely dangerous stunts as a hobby? It's irresponsible and it makes Eric Zala in particular seem like a colossal bastard, unconcerned with much of anything beyond his own urges.

As “The Wolfpack” gets seen, I suspect we'll see people off the brothers the chance to make at least one movie of their own, and I'm curious to see if they have something to say. They certainly have a point of view that is unique to them, but it is one that depends largely on the films they digested. How will that cohere as an artistic voice? And in the end, is this what the brothers are going to do with their lives, or is it simply the way they kept themselves intact until they could remake the world the way they wanted?

There is one more film right now that says a lot about the role pop culture plays in our lives, and it does more than save a life in this case… it transforms an entire community. “Batkid Begins” is a beautiful movie, and Dana Nachman has made a film of extraordinary kindness, a film that I found deeply moving from the moment it began to the moment it ended. We live in a cynical age, and it is incredibly easy to let yourself believe that society is fundamentally broken, but this film not only affirms that people are decent when inspired properly, but that explores the power of pop culture to unite and to heal. “Batkid Begins” is a very special film, one that is overwhelmingly emotional. No parent will be unaffected by this, but the power of the film is showing how infectious kindness can be. In a world where this many jaded Californians can be shocked out of their daily routine and moved to show up to support one sick child, it's easy to believe that anything is possible. Hollywood routinely uses every special effect and all the money in the world to try to create the illusion of magic; “Batkid Begins” is real magic, start to finish.

You can see “Batkid Begins” in theaters everywhere, and “The Wolfpack” is rolling out in theaters as well. I'm not sure when or if “Raiders!” will be available, but I'm sure someone will find a way to bundle it with the full film by the kids.