Austin Film Festival: Booger Red

Satanic panic déjà vu amidst the East Texas pines

Adapted from Michael Hall’s 2009 Texas Monthly article “Across the Line,” Booger Red is an explosive example of cinematic “new journalism” that re-examines the facts surrounding one of the state’s most horrific cases of alleged child sex rings.

Onur Tukel in Booger Red

Mixing interviews with and acting from the actual defendants alongside a fictional investigative reporter (Onur Tukel) and his sister-in-law (Marija Karan), Booger Red falls somewhere between Errol Morris’s The Thin Blue Line and Call Northside 777’s cynicism.

Austin-based director Berndt Mader bites down hard on this lurid, bitter pill of Texas legal outrage and calls into question the entirety of the state’s charges. Broadly put, those 2007 charges focused on a Mineola swingers club that allegedly harbored a child porn ring, forcing both male and female pre-teens to take “silly pills” and then perform sex acts for a live audience. The kids were interviewed, the suspects indicted, arraigned, and convicted, but much like 1980’s infamous McMartin preschool trial in California, or for that matter Austin’s own Oak Hill Daycare devil-scare, it appears that the prosecution relied heavily on some very dodgy “evidence.” Seven people received jail time, with six of the seven defendents having since been released. Only Dennis Pittman remains in jail, ostensibly for life, without parole.

Despite - or possibly because of - the unsavoriness of the story it’s telling, Booger Red is a remarkable piece of hybrid filmmaking. It’s adept at seeking out the truth via the sheer doggedness of its lone, fucked-up protagonist. One bit, which finds Tukel supremely drunk, high on blow, and breaking into the long-abandoned swinger’s club - he’s got his own devils to slay, obviously - takes on a genuinely disturbing vibe, as his psyche crumbles into hallucinatory overload. Couple that to the sound of utter hysteria in the form of Alexander Maas and Brett Orrison’s highly effective score and Jimmy Lee Phelan’s alternately hyper-realistic and dreamy camerawork, and the sequence comes off nearly as unnerving as Apocalypse Now’s “Do Lung Bridge” scene.

”Nobody’s even got money for investigative journalism anymore,” opines Booger Red’s intensely idealistic journo as he floats around a motel pool, a tumbler of whisky clamped in one hand. “No one cares. They care about Beyoncé, that’s what they care about … they don’t give a shit that the world’s crumbling beneath their feet.” Turns out his only audience is one sad, fat kid dangling his feet in the water. Madler’s film targets more than just the Texas legal system. It examines the whole of modern American life and finds it wanting in so many ways.

Booger Red screens again Monday, Nov. 2, 7:15pm, at the Rollins Studio Theatre. See for info and tickets, and follow all of our AFF coverage here.

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Booger Red, Austin Film Festival 2015

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