Being the Diablo is exactly the kind of documentary you want to see at a festival: a personal film about a very strange person. Though he was once institutionalized, and Diablo features candid discussions about his bipolar disorder and claims of childhood sexual abuse, Asheville, North Carolina’s Mickey Mahaffey has to be one of the most salient homeless mayoral candidates any city’s ever seen. A onetime Christian minister, Mahaffey spent seven years sleeping on a mattress in the woods because he feels he’s been called to lead a “Spartan life.” The way Mahaffey sells the idea, it sounds like one part John the Baptist to nine parts Henry David Thoreau.
Mahaffey’s got an undeniable charisma, enough to develop a Pied Piper-like following among the area’s outsiders, but director Rod Murphy never allows his subject’s point of view to dominate the picture. At the height of Mahaffey’s lengthiest Walden musing about the unnecessary distractions of modern consumerism, the camera pans over to his daughter, Stephanie, who immediately calls bullshit. A couple of the things Mahaffey decided he could do without were his children, or at least his sense of responsibility to them. Throughout the film, Stephanie defends her father without ever letting him off the hook, retrospectively sympathizing with her mother’s struggles as a single parent and feeling guilty for so often siding with her father because he seemed like the fun one. As an adult, Stephanie seems to appreciate her father’s philosophical side — one of the film’s threads shows her searching for a balance between her mother’s desire for security and her father’s rejection of society’s indicators of success — but as a teenager she mostly liked him because he let her smoke cigarettes with her friends.
Murphy’s film follows Mahaffey for three years, framing the narrative with his annual pilgrimage to an out-of-the-way Mexican village, home to the Tarahumara tribe, where his regular presence leads to an invitation to play el Diablo in an Easter rite that’s as much leftover “pagan” ritual with a cross slapped on it as our own eggs and rabbits. Over his three-year stint playing the devil in a corn-alcohol-fueled, body-paint-enhanced ceremonial dance, Mahaffey’s life changes quite a bit — he apologizes to his ex-wife and even moves indoors — but his unique, strangely appealing worldview, his concern for misfits and illegal immigrants, provide the film’s most compelling moments. Murphy has a gift for showcasing the commonness of his subject’s day-to-day concerns, making us relate to them as actual human beings, but possibly also hurting the documentary’s chances of gaining a cult following, which often seems dependant on the subject-as-sideshow-attraction element. If it weren’t at the San Antonio Film Festival, you might never have the chance to see this film or several of the fest’s other entries, many of which seem too awesomely abnormal to find an audience in wide release. If one of them does, however, you’ll always have bragging rights because you saw it first.
Being the Diablo screens Thursday. Read our picks for some of the fest’s best bets right, and turn to page 33 for a more complete schedule. •
San Antonio Film Festival
$15 (per evening); $69(five-day pass)
Wed Jun 23 – Sun Jun 27
Instituto Cultural de Mexico
600 Hemisfair Park
Five Films You Shouldn't Miss
WEDNESDAY: Tierra Madre
Dir. Dylan Verrechia
Aidee Gonzalez fights to raise her children with her female partner in Tecate, Mexico. Based on a true story. See also: Yoni Goodman’s “Closed Zone,” an animated short depicting Israel’s Gaza Strip closure in less than two minutes, and “Fantasy Inc.,” a sci-fi short by San Antonio’s Bryan Ortiz.
THURSDAY: Heaven in Exile
Dir. Omar Rosales
Fifty years after the Dalai Lama fled Tibet to establish an exile community in India, Harlingen filmmaker Rosales chronicles the refugees’ efforts to maintain their culture. See also: “Mission on Seven,” director Mark Hall’s documentary about Steve Wilson, curator of the Harry Ransom Center’s film archive in Austin, and “Rinky Dink,” John Dilworth’s five-minute animated take on true love.
FRIDAY: S.O.S. Antarctica 51m
Dir. William Doerr
San Antonio’s Doerr tells the story of six men who sail from Argentina to Antarctica through Drake’s Passage. See also: “Taco! Taco! Taco!” John Estrada’s short narrative about taco-stand wars, and “Gillface,” a musical about the problems a Creature From the Black Lagoon has finding acceptance in a mostly human office place, by San Antonio filmmaker David McGinnis.
SATURDAY: Virtual JFK
Dir. Koji Masutani
If John F. Kennedy hadn’t been assassinated, would the U.S. have escalated the Vietnam War? See also: Donald Tayloe’s “The Last Elephants in Thailand,” documenting the plight of amusement-park pachyderms, and “Speak and May the Plague Take You,” a meta-fictive short about a creator’s negotiations with his characters by Boerne’s Cody Duckworth.
SUNDAY: Disney Shot Kennedy
Dir. David Lawrence
Examining the last days of fictional tinfoil-hatted rag The Oswald Conspiracy Newspaper. See also: El Paso documentarian Diana Cordova’s “Breaking Borders: Cross-Dressers & Drag,” and Ryan Gould’s “Sucker Punch,” in which a masochist competes in underground bare-knuckle boxing for obvious reasons.