First time director Adam Ripp received a good bit of attention for his film Gang
Tapes, unfortunately for most, it was for all the wrong reasons. The white, Jewish
director was lambasted by the public for his attempt to tell the real story of
the gangs in South Central Los Angeles, despite the support of that neighborhood.
Theater owners refused to book the film for fear of riots and for a while it seemed
all the attention the film got was bad. Its release on DVD will hopefully change
some of that and perhaps the public will take a chance and view this engrossing
and challenging look at gang life.
Filmed on a meager budget (by Hollywood standards) using a digital video camera,
Gang Tapes is the coming of age story of young Kris (new actor Trivell). Surrounded
by a life of violence and family, the young man has many difficult choices ahead
of him. Perhaps his outlook would be better if he weren't caught between his
mother and his friends, who each want him to go in a different direction.
The controversy around the film, aside from Ripp's background, stemmed from
his use of the digital video and realistic style. The story starts off with
a family on vacation in Hollywood. They film themselves at all the tourist locations
and later get lost in South Central LA. It's at this point the story takes a
shocking turn as the family is car-jacked and removed from their van by several
gang members who happen to keep their camera as well. The camera, through the
hands of Kris, becomes an outsiders look at not only gang life, but life in
the Watts neighborhood as well.
The unique and unorthodox method of filming let Ripp extract good performances
from his mostly inexperienced cast. Comprised of several ex-gang members, the
performances are real and the film is edited in a way to hide the inexperienced
cast members. The comfort with which the camera is carried from scene to scene
makes you believe your witnessing the inner-workings of the gang as they go
trough their everyday activities.
Ripp's film makes a powerful statement that those not familiar with the culture
may find hard to believe. The fact that everyday could be your last for little
more than walking out the door is a hard reality to face and an even harder
one to live with. His realistic look at life in the gang shows that there's
more to it than red or blue clothing and a need for power and money.
Video: Filmed with a high-end digital camcorder, the video doesn't have
the polished feel of a feature film and it would suffer if it did. Part of the
power of the film comes from its slightly grainy and washed video and unsteady
camera angels. To analyze the quality would be counter-productive to the whole
process and idea of the film.
Audio: The audio is a good stereo track that works perfectly in the
context of the film. At times, the audio is hard to hear based on the limitations
of the camera, but it's never an irritating problem. The music included in the
film booms from the speakers and is mix well.
Extras: Typical to Lions Gate, this single disc release is pack with
several features. The most interesting would be the documentary that details
the making of the film. More than a confirmation that it is a film, it shows
the attention to detail and willingness to work with the community that allowed
Ripp to work his way inside this little seen world. From the screen tests to
the rewriting of the script in street lingo, it's all detailed here. There are
numerous audio tracks included on the disc. Ripp has said that the music played
an important part in the film and much of it is included here. A full-length
music video is featured as well.
A commentary track is available with Ripp, writer Steven Wolfson and producer
David Goodman. It's an interesting track that reveals the dangers of working
in such a highly volatile area. After shooting a death scene, the cast and crew
are shaken when they learn that one of the actor's cousins has been killed just
a short distance away. It also serves as a introduction and explanation for
some of the gang terms that are used throughout the film. Definitely one of
the more interesting commentary tracks to come along.
Overall: Gang Tapes is a highly original and innovative film that missed
its audience upon its initial release due the controversy that it might have
caused. Despite that fact, Lions Gate has given it an appropriate DVD release
that will hopefully allow this film to find the audience it so deserves. The
violent and sometimes shocking look at gang culture is definitely not for everyone,
but it should not be overlooked.