SXSW Film Review: Disgraced, Pat Kondelis, 2017

 

First, a bit of venue overview. Alamo Ritz wins the prize for the “most alternative” fillers of any theater I’ve attended. No black screens of boredom here before your show. There were 70s French art house music videos with people bowing as if playing violins on body parts; a band called Telegenics singing about dominatrix; cat videos; bollywood music videos full of transforming smart phones, belly-dancing men in tiger costumes, and of course large group dancing. Just before the show starts, Bobby the Giant Child from Food of the Gods II reminds would-be texting viewers that if they violate that sacred trust, they need to “get the fuck outta my room!”

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I feel obligated to start with a buoyant tone, because nothing about this film is light. Disgraced opens when Patrick Dennehy, a star player of the Baylor university basketball team, went missing in 2003. A few days after the police was informed, a full canvas and investigation began. But the deeper they delved, the less clear the case became. The local police forces and the FBI slowly pieced together a trail that revealed how his friend and roommate had gunned him down in a grassy field, without any motive whatsoever. But this story only gets more bizarre. In his zeal to win a basketball championship, it appears that the head coach Dave Bliss had made deals with players that breached NCAA code of conduct. Somehow, Bliss’ involvement was intricately linked to the murder. The details were not just suspicious. It was serious enough that Bliss applied pressure to turn his players into accomplices. They wanted to besmirch the dead in order to save Bliss from an NCAA investigation. If that’s not a case worthy of Sherlock Holmes, I don’t know what is.

In real life, detectives don’t have an all-powerful Mycroft at their beck and call. Even though this tragedy garnered national attention back then, it was never resolved on a level that would be satisfactory to anyone. Yet since the issues were local to Texas, once the national optics turned elsewhere and the news cycle faded, these influences came into the fore. Prominent among these local interests is Baylor University itself, which saw the murder case and the associated issues with the basketball program as a scandal, and sought to sweep things under the rug. If not for just one wrinkle, we would not have this documentary – Patrick’s roommate was found to be mentally-ill, confessed and was sentenced; Bliss resigned; everything seemed settled.

However, Bliss’ assistant coach recorded him scheming. On tape.

Those tapes, the fallout, and what truth they obscured, are in fact the whole point of Disgraced. The cinematography and reenactments are clearly well-produced. But these elements serve to set the desired context, in order that the audience can appreciate the recordings. It permitted Bliss, who was interviewed comprehensively, an ostensible chance to defend himself. In the Q&A after the screening, the Austin-based filmmaker Pat Kondelis suggested that in the early days while arranging the interview, Bliss led him to believe that a type of confession would be forthcoming. These exchanges and discussions, even now, are still tinged with a very local and emotional element. There were support for either side: I spied a few Baylor supporters who left in disgust right after the screening, and there’s certainly no doubt where Kondelis stands. One might be turned off by this type of potential bias. But it still doesn’t detract from the compelling and damning evidence. What this documentary mimics is a traveling courtroom. And each audience as jury, I expect, experiences that cast-the-first-stone moment: the sheer gall of the officials and Bliss in constructing the lie; their insistence that the victim “deserved his fate”; the destruction these memories and lingering questions wrought on Dennehy’s family. The audience booed each bold face lie, jeered at Bliss’ amateurish denial, and shed tears with the parents. It’s a remote yet strangely participatory film. 14 years since that time, Baylor University is again in the spotlight with a new scandal, this time regarding sexual assault. Though it may take a first-class mind to wade through the minutiae of evidence, it takes only a first-grade one to see that denial is no longer working. Although as the film seeks to remind us, Bliss IS still working as a basketball coach. Now, that is something to think about.

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Posted on by Gary in Everything, Movies, Reviews, South By Southwest

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