The Dwarvenaut

Studio: filmbuff
Directed by Josh Bishop

Aug 11, 2016 Web Exclusive
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Crafting a relatable image of a die-hard role playing game enthusiast can be a challenging task but that is the cinematic gauntlet director Josh Bishop snatched up when he began his latest documentary, The Dwarvenaut. The film's subject, sculptor Stefan Pokorny, makes the job all the more difficult as he embodies and even relishes some of the more stereotypical nerd behaviors. While the film does create an engaging portrait of an artist struggling with identity, financial woes and artistic purity it's singular focus on Pokorny hinders this relatability. There is even a touch of self-aggrandizement, as the film can seem more like  an advertisement for Pokorny’s company, Dwarven Forge, than a documentary about his life.

Bishop does an excellent job capturing Pokorny's detailed and generous artistry, whipping the camera around city streets, dank dungeons and underground sewers. The narrative casts Pokorny as a visionary sculptor in the roleplaying world and indeed, his creations of twisting tunnels, snarling ratmen and a vast, complex city named Valoria are meticulous and beautiful. A Kickstarter campaign about this vast city, Pokorny’s long-held and lovingly crafted vision, is the driving beat of Dwarvenaut. Two successful campaigns have kept things afloat but the situation is are far less certain as the third one begins. Dwarven Forge is on the brink of folding and a future of waiting tables looms for Pokorny.

The film goes on to to detail his adoption from South Korea and struggles with drugs and alcohol. Both are potent, intriguing but unfortunately everything in Dwarvenaut is filtered from Pokorny’s particular lens. There is very little reflection from the outside, most notably a  few anonymous convention goers who praise his skill with the scalpel. A childhood friend recounts their time together but that is more concerned with his dungeon master skills and the loss of a mutual friend than anything specifically about Pokorny the person. Even his girlfriend is mute throughout the film. Her singular highlight is handing him a plastic bag full of clean underwear as Pokorny is on his way to Gary Con (a convention honoring Gary Gygax, creator of Dungeons & Dragons) to summon backers for his ambitious Valoria project. Dwarvenaut gives a glimpse of Pokorny's substance abuse struggles as he gets too drunk one convention night and, in an ironic glimpse of self-nerd hate,  is embroiled in giving a fellow gamer that staple of jock cruelty, an atomic wedgie. Because of this debauchery, he slags off an elder of the roleplaying community who subsequently offers some advice about his indulgent nature. Pokorny seems quite content to brush off any criticism of his personal life, thinking it inconsequential in comparison to his lofty artistic goals. This discrepancy is barely remarked upon by Bishop. It’s treated as another eccentric accoutrement of Pokorny’s, more akin to a drooping wizard’s hat or a cheap cult leader cloak than an actual, emotional touchstone into his psyche.

Most confounding in The Dwarvenaut (and perhaps the most revealing clue about Pokorny’s sense of importance), is the complete lack of acknowledgement for the rest of team of artists and writers involved in the artistic endeavour of creating Valoria. They get no title or introduction and are given far less screen time than the miniatures and sets they helped to imagine and shape. Like the people seen in his personal life, they are given short shrift in the film. Still, Pokorny's heart is a good one and his devotion to Dungeons & Dragons as a powerful social experiment is admirable. It's a shame the social engagement barely reaches anyone else in Dwarvenaut. Seeing Pokorny through their eyes may have pulled Bishop’s documentary out of it's niche market and into something larger. Instead, we are left with more questions and cliches than anything else.  

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Author rating: 5.5/10

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