Darkon (2006): Audience Award Winner at SXSW Film Fest

Darkon, winner of this year’s Austin’s SXSW Film Festival Audience Award, opened to a large, eager crowd at the Los Angeles Film Festival, most under the age of 30.

An ode to nonconformity, it’s easy to see why the documentary would be a favorite among young urbanites. Yet for all its hipster appeal, it’s hard to imagine anyone who would not be charmed by this humanistic, thoughtful and highly entertaining film.

Daniel is a pudgy Starbucks employee who has trouble talking to girls. Skip is a stay-at-home dad who enjoys making cardboard shields and dressing up in elaborate Halloween costumes. Kenyon, as his parents explain, wasn’t a “real people person” growing up.

Most would call these people nerds. But in the Realm of Darkon, they discard their self-effacing demeanor and poor social skills for chain mail and powerful leadership positions. On the battlefield, Daniel, Skip and Kenyon become Trivius, Bannor and Keldar.

These “weekend warriors” meet in Baltimore-area soccer fields and public parks to engage in LARK, or live-action role-playing. Wielding foam sticks and PVC pipes, participants battle for power and territory. The land, as one warrior explains, is essentially invisible, but it certainly helps to bolster one’s ego.

Filmmakers Andrew Neel and Luke Meyer, who spent three years researching various types of role-playing games, are not oblivious to the humor that comes from seeing grown men and women don homemade armor, exchange battle tactics and refer to themselves as their alter egos. The mock-seriousness of the epic, “The Lord of the Rings”-style battle scenes juxtaposed with such everyday footage as Skip petting his cat while he discusses his plan to defeat Keldar keeps the laughs coming. However, “Darkon” is never condescending; Neel and Meyer understand their subjects and treat them with affection.

To the casual observer, these characters may seem a bit freakish. A psychologist would call their behavior unhealthy, escapism taken to the extreme. Even the media, an escapist medium, is grounded in a realist mentality. Dr. Phil, Oprah and “Queer Eye for the Straight Guy” tell us to get a clue, get a life and get a decent wardrobe.

“Darkon,” alternatively, shows that escapism is not only comforting, but also empowering. In a society where they are ignored and ridiculed, alter egos allow these characters to assume agency and form an identity for themselves separate from the ones they have been trapped in since birth. One woman says she has a menial job where it wouldn’t really matter if she came in each day, but battles give her a sense of purpose.

We also have to ask ourselves, why are some forms of escapism more acceptable than others Why is it OK to turn to our I-Pods and issues of US Weekly whenever life gets us down, but not to engage in medieval role-playing, which, as silly as it looks, at least encourages social interaction
By the end of the film, we may not find ourselves teaming up with elves to fight the forces of evil, but at least we can understand why some people just might be inclined to do so.

Written by Kate Findley