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The Underground
World of Cockfighting


The trailer for Cockfight begins with the ominous image of a man strapping razor blades onto a rooster’s talons and carrying the bird into a dirt ring. It has all the elements of a gritty exposÈ.
    But the documentary’s producer, recent film-school graduate Loren Mendell C’95, says he and his film partner came away with a surprisingly human portrait of the people who engage in this underground sport.
    The hour-long documentary premiered at the New York International Independent Film Festival in early April (www.cockfightthemovie.com).

    It focuses on three subjects. One is Manuel, a 73-year-old Sacramento man who is “kind of a godfather of cockfighting. He is really passionate about cockfighting and we ended up following him around and going to some underground fights in California,” where attendance is a misdemeanor. “These were like a family sport almost. A husband and wife would take their kids to a cockfight like they were going to the movies.”
    The next is Clara, a Latina woman who lives on the border of Arizona and Mexico and held cockfights in her yard until the sport was outlawed by the state two years ago. “Cockfighting was something that had been part of her family tradition and she wanted to pass it on to her children and grandchildren.” The final character is Larry, an American expatriate who moved to Mexico to breed and fight birds, and referee cockfighting tournaments.
    “When you imagine cockfighters, he is what we expected to get—kind of a tough guy,” Mendell says. “The other two were total surprises. We went into the film looking for the dark, deviant aspects of the sport, and what we found was a more human side—a way of life and a dying culture.
    “This is not to say the film is pro-cockfighting, but it sort of provides a balanced portrait.” They also interviewed a representative from the Sacramento Humane Society and the Arizona animal-control officer who helped get it outlawed.
    Before they began filming, Mendell and his partner knew they needed to win the trust of the cockfighting community, so they crossed the border into Mexico to attend fights in noisy, packed arenas—events which often started at 8 at night and lasted until dawn. “At first you’re taken by the spectacle. Sometimes if it is a particularly bloody cockfight, you do feel a bit uncomfortable,” Mendell says, but adds that the people fighting the birds “didn’t seem bothered by the blood. It’s what they know. They are chickens; we do eat these things. But if it were dog fighting, I don’t think I would have felt the same way.”
    Mendell, who recently graduated from University of Southern California film school, is researching another documentary project in the Dominican Republic, but is keeping the topic under wraps for now. He says it doesn’t focus on illegal activities but like Cockfight, “it does involve cultural elements and what’s important to people.”

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