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Friday, April 27, 2001

Friends on both sides of film

Filmmaker profiles buddy in documentary about everyday triumphs and tribulations

Close friends since they were 12 years old, Duane and Rene met while filming "Innocent Bystanders." Their friendship grew through other collaborations - including the much-lauded "Revenge of the Cabbage Patch Killer," which was a favorite among the neighborhood kids in San Antonio where they grew up.
   Duane Graves, now a 25-year-old filmmaker, has been fiddling with video cameras ever since and is celebrating with his first feature film, "Up Syndrome."
   Graves again chose to feature his childhood chum Rene Moreno in this movie, but this time they worked without a script. "Up Syndrome" is a documentary on Moreno, who has Down syndrome. It's an endearing portrait that allows everyone into Moreno's inner circle to see everything from his unbeatable plights to his small victories, a universal theme.
   Graves will screen "Up Syndrome" at 7 p.m. tonight at the Art Museum of South Texas, partly because he studied film at Texas A&M University-Corpus Christi.
   Day in the life
   The film starts with Graves introducing Moreno through narrative. They were neighbors and eventually friends as they grew up. Graves learned that Moreno had Down syndrome, but Moreno didn't seem down to him.
   Graves captures Moreno on trips to Luby's, the circus and the bowling alley; in random monologues, Moreno muses on a variety of issues. Subtitles guide the viewer through Moreno's sometimes-incomprehensible speech, and the film paints a portrait that reveals multiple layers of his often-misunderstood personality.
   But that portrait is elongated. "Up Syndrome" would be better off 20 minutes shorter. Some scenes are repetitive and others don't lend additional insight or entertainment value.
   Not that Moreno isn't entertaining, but some of the editing appears as if Graves was trying too hard to force "Up Syndrome" into feature film status.
   Festival screenings
   A short week after his South Texas screening, Graves will be among easterners at the Williamsburg Brooklyn Film Festival, which is the latest in a long line of festivals to host "Up Syndrome."
   The film won best documentary at California's Temecula Valley International Film Festival and the Fort Worth Film Festival. It's been screened at others - Austin Film Festival and San Antonio Cinefestival - but most credibly, Slamdance, the fringe guerrilla companion to Robert Redford's Sundance.
   Graves isn't surprised by all the attention. He knew Moreno's story would appeal to everyone. It was just a matter of getting there.
   How it happened
   While Moreno attended a special-education high school, Graves went to public schools and studied film at Texas A&M University-Corpus Christi. After graduation, Graves stumbled across a complete 16mm collection of all 179 "I Love Lucy" episodes, and after selling them for a cool $4,000 on eBay, he bought equipment and called Moreno.
   In 1998, Graves started to capture his day trips and random conversations with Moreno on video. After a year and a half and 75 hours of tape, Graves moved to Austin to begin post-production and resume his studies at the University of Texas.
   He said that no matter his future successes and studio pressures, he plans to stay in Texas.
   "I don't think I'd want to leave Austin and Texas," Graves said. "I'd like to work out of here, Robert Rodriguez-style. I went to Los Angeles last September and did a screening there, and it's a nice place, but I'd rather stay here."
   Seeing himself
   The film features music from the Raintree, a band Graves knows from Austin, and also a few pieces spontaneously composed by Moreno on the harmonica, piano and guitar.
   "I knew I'd use some of it to give it the more personal touch," Graves said.
   When Moreno first saw the finished product, he rewound it and watched it two more times back to back to back.
   "He'll make himself scared of himself or sad about himself," Graves said. "He was watching as if he didn't even know himself. He would close his eyes and cover his face during the scary Halloween stuff. He was experiencing it for the first time with everyone else. When we were shooting, a lot of the time he didn't realize the camera was on. I don't think he realized that I had captured a lot of the things I had captured."

Pop culture and media critic Ricardo Baca can be reached at 886-3688 or by e-mail at

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