20 January 2011 | minervaK
surprising character study
This short film plays less like a documentary than a portrait of Jicarilla Apache actor Alan Tafoya, which, with a less compelling subject, might disappoint viewers looking for a Rocky Balboa-style smack-down about the triumph of the little guy against overwhelming odds. Given the storyline, which follows Tafoya on his quest for a second victory at the 2000 Soldier of Fortune Knife Fighting Championships in Las Vegas, the expectation is understandable. However, after a beguiling opening sequence in which Tafoya explains his reasons for first attending the conference in 1999, the viewer quickly realizes that s/he is in for a more complex trip. This trip takes us through not one, but two worlds that most of us have never experienced: the industry and subculture of anti-government survivalist groups, and the Jicarilla Apache mind and heart.
My only complaint about this film is that it's too short. There are so many complex themes in play here -- the rise of militant groups in the vicinity of the Jicarilla Nation's lands; Tafoya's personal history and relationship with his father, who died shortly after his first victory; the implications of an Apache participating in a tournament held by a group arguably unsympathetic to his Nation's survival -- that I find myself hoping director Miguel Najera will come back to this story in the future and expand it into a longer work. As it is, the film only touches on these themes, managing to keep them all in balance but tantalizingly unexplored.
As the main subject, Tafoya is a fascinating hybrid of gentle family man and sharp-eyed killer, Zen warrior and waggish commentator. When it becomes clear toward the end of the film that the competition has drawn far fewer participants than expected, Tafoya's undimmed ferocity suggests a commitment to something beyond simply winning. The final scenes hint at what it might be: a challenge to the self-styled 'patriot' organizers of the conference to acknowledge the contributions of all who fought for the causes they espouse.
The production values are surprisingly good for this obviously low-budget film; Najera's eye for composition is strong, and with the exception of the fighting bout scenes (which were held in a small, bare room, probably making them very difficult to shoot), every frame feels well-considered and visually balanced. Some of the location choices are risky, such as the scene on the side of a busy highway where Tafoya tells us he's decided not to return to the competition the next year while stretching out against the side of a vehicle, but Najera somehow keeps them under control. The scene in which Tafoya addresses a large gathering at the end of the conference is an example of Najera's intelligent framing -- he places the camera at the back of the room, so that Tafoya is seen from a distance, above a sea of heads. As Tafoya addresses the crowd, his words join with the smallness of the figures in the vast space to bring the larger themes of the film into focus. Overall, a very interesting character study with an unusual and thought-provoking story.