Review by Camden Ferrell
Donald Rugoff may not be a household name, but the documentary Searching for Mr. Rugoff makes a compelling case for knowing that name. It is the directorial debut of indie film veteran Ira Deutchman, and it had its premiere at the 2019 DOC NYC, America’s biggest documentary film festival. While the movie doesn’t always capture the same energy and entertainment that Rugoff allegedly possessed, it is still an enjoyable look into the career and impact of a man who made a splash in the film industry.
Rugoff was the mad genius who was behind Cinema 5, a theater chain and film distributor. His craziness and unorthodox marketing helped usher art-house films into the mainstream. He was described as difficult and impossible, and this documentary uses testimony from former employees and contemporaries to paint a picture of an influential man who has been consigned to obscurity. This is an interesting subject, and there is a lot of rich cinematic history in this time period that helps make the story more dynamic.
Deutchman delivers a noble first film, and this is mostly because it is obvious that he has a profound respect and admiration for Rugoff. This is evident in the way the film is executed and his onscreen journey to learn more about this enigmatic man. This is the type of film that lives or dies by its director’s passion for the subject. In this regard, the film succeeds in honoring his legacy as well as capturing an image of the film industry in this time period.
As mentioned before, the film features a myriad of interviews from former employees and colleagues. They do a mostly sufficient job of creating a portrait of Rugoff. The excess of interviews can bring down the film and its pacing, but it’s clear there isn’t a lot of other material to capture his character. Most of the interviewees bring something to the table to elevate the film, but there are a handful that do feel inconsequential.
The film’s strongest aspect is how it incorporates film history into the story of Rugoff. Deutchman’s admiration for independent cinema is most apparent in these moments, and these sections of the movie are very entertaining and informative. Unfortunately, there are other sections of the movie that interrupt the momentum and make the pacing feel sluggish. It’s an enjoyable movie, but it doesn’t quite live up to Rugoff’s legacy and impact on modern independent cinema.
Searching for Mr. Rugoff is an enjoyable documentary that film buffs will most definitely enjoy. Despite some questionable pacing, this is a movie that is entertaining and is a great debut from Deutchman as a director.
Searching for Mr. Rugoff is in theaters August 13.
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