Austin Film Festival 2015: ‘Booger Red’ explores Texas child-sex ring claims

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The following was written by Jane Sumner, special to the American-Statesman

One week after its world premiere at the American Film Festival in Warsaw, Poland, “Booger Red,” written and directed by Emmy winner Berndt Mader, comes to the Austin Film Festival for its North American premiere.

In 2009, an enterprising reporter named Michael Hall had a story in Texas Monthly about a swingers club in Mineola that, according to the Smith County district attorney, was the scene of “the most horrific child sex ring” in the history of the state.

Eventually, seven people were sentenced to life in prison for their roles in the heinous operation. Trouble was, as Hall wrote in his astonishing “Across the Line,” the DA in Wood County, where the swingers club was located, said no such thing happened there.

Austin-based filmmaker Berndt Mader (“Five Time Champion“) knows a good story when he reads it, especially one that calls out for justice. The result is “Booger Red,” a unique telling of a Texas reporter’s dogged search for the truth about a purported child sex ring in Smith County.

From 2005 to 2008, four Tyler kids, aged four to seven, alleged that seven adults forced them to learn sexy behavior at a trailer park “kindergarten,” then perform live sex shows on stage at a Mineola swingers club.

The youngsters, who at first denied knowledge of such goings-on, later floated weird tales of witches, chicken killings and flying around on a broom. Wood County investigated. So did the FBI. No evidence was ever found to corroborate the children’s claims. Then Smith County got involved, arrests were made, citizens were upset, trials were held and seven folks were led away for life.

Inspired by films like Abbas Kiarostami’s “Close Up” and Haskell Wexler’s “Medium Cool,” which combined documentary and narrative techniques, “Booger Red” opens with a visit to Dennis Pittman, the only one of the seven accused still in prison.

From there, the docudrama follows a fictitious reporter (Onur Tukel), modeled on the actor himself, as he travels with his brother’s widow (Serbian-born actress Marija Karan) to East Texas, where he interviews local folks involved in the case.

Tukel’s character is a funny huggy-bear with a great thirst and a nose for blow as well as news. He keeps telling his bright sister-in-law, who gets bored and begins doing her own sleuthing, that she’s no journalist. He’s wrong.

Kudos to the young actors playing the kids. They’re wary, distant and believable. And as good as Tukel, Karan and Alex Karpovsky as the reporter’s editor are, it’s the real people – the defendants like Patrick Kelly aka Booger Red and the lawyers like Bobby Mims — who give this film its beating heart.

Shot in East Texas by director of photography Jimmy Lee Phelan and edited by Sam Douglas, “Booger Red” does what the filmmakers intended: It gives the victims of what Mims calls a ”pure old Texas frame-up” a chance to tell their story.

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