In a pop culture dominated world where superheroes and science fiction reign supreme, it’s easy to think of the term “nerd” as an oblique form of labeling. Nerd culture is everywhere, to the point where it now is, and has been for a while, cool to be a “nerd. ” Even “Warcraft” was made into a film, much to the delight and horror of fans everywhere who never thought they’d see the day and then, likely, wished they hadn’t. However, if there’s any form of “nerd” culture that hasn’t yet been broached by the mainstream, it’s the ongoing and extensive world of “Dungeons and Dragons.” And while the documentary “The Dwarvenaut” won’t break any new ground in terms of nonfiction narrative, it will ideally open up viewers eyes to the fact that art goes far beyond what’s painted or drawn and can be seen in the figurines of a live action role playing game.
“If you can create great art, then that’s a piece of immortality,” says Stefan Pokorny, the focus of director Josh Bishop‘s film. He’s a Brooklyn based artist who spends his days crafting sets for D&D aficionados, and attempts to raise $6.4 million on Kickstarter to fund his passion project. Viewed as a visionary and working as both an artist and entrepreneur, his story offers natural interest to those who covet stories about underdogs, and Pokorny’s backstory, coupled with his elastic and creative mind, makes for a particularly fascinating study.
What makes Pokorny such an intriguing figure to lead a documentary is how affable he appears on camera. For all the stresses he endures in trying to capture his dream, his demeanor is strikingly collected and laid back for the majority of the running time, aside from the moments where his intake of alcohol is explored. Perhaps a further investigation might have revealed a more colorful character, but certainly not one who is looking to simply inspire with a true story.
Where “The Dwarvenaut” loses its narrative thread is how it chooses to depict Pokorny without ever expanding its perspective any further than his viewpoint. Along with that is the fact that the documentary seems to be splitting its focus between Pokorny himself and the life he led that allowed him to reach his current situation, and the community that surrounds “Dungeons & Dragons” and other games similar to its kind. It’s easy to imagine that had all the focus gone into one or the other, the outcome would have much more illuminating for the subject. Regardless, the story of Pokorny’s upbringing is an affecting one and gives life to the person he becomes, especially as he speaks about how his adoptive parents helped him find his path in life after a troubling adolescence.
Bishop has an eye for the fantastical, making lively what could have been a beat for beat doc with one interview softly fading into the next. While Bishop does fall into that temptation once while rolling footage of festival attendees praising Pokorny’s work, he typically errs on the side of subverting expectations. The opening in particular is a bold move as we’re immediately fully submerged in Pokorny’s vivid imagination.
“The Dwarvenaut” explores someone who lives in a world not often depicted as an art form, outside of the fans who don the wizard hats and capes. There’s artwork to be found in all corners of the world and Pokorny has offered his distinct stylings into a niche community where it’s allowed fans of the game to genuinely immerse themselves into the particular world. Greater still is the exploration of the need of art as a healing tool, and the need for escapism that Pokorny partakes in and invites others to join. [B]
“The Dwarvenaut” is now streaming on Netflix.