Florida's current stellar reputation will be burnished even further with the release of "Raw Deal: A Question of Consent," a graphic account of a sordid was-she-or-wasn't-she-raped case in which everyone who passes in front of the camera looks like an absolute sleazebag.

Florida’s current stellar reputation will be burnished even further with the release of “Raw Deal: A Question of Consent,” a graphic account of a sordid was-she-or-wasn’t-she-raped case in which everyone who passes in front of the camera looks like an absolute sleazebag. Sensational nature of the incident, in which the lewd activities of an “exotic dancer” and a bunch of rowdy frat boys were captured for posterity on videotape, makes this documentary an automatic publicity magnet. How Artisan manages to position the film commercially will be fascinating to follow: Hard-core sex footage would seem to rule out all but the most specialized theatrical dates, but distrib could conceivably break down some conventional barriers for unrated pics by creating major want-see via a “this is reality you’ll never see on TV” build, or it could chicken out and release an edited R-rated version. But whether in theaters or on the home screen down the line, potential is unusually big for a docu.

What took place on the nights of Feb. 26-27, 1999, at the Delta Chi fraternity on the U. of Florida campus at Gainesville has doubtlessly happened innumerable times before: Frat boys hire a couple of strippers for a party, and indulge in unlimited brew and weed; virtually nude lap-dancing femmes stimulate male fantasies of further possibilities; and, if the women seem half-way willing, such fantasies are acted upon.

Big difference this time is that two 8mm video cameras recorded the whole thing, providing the kind of evidence that virtually never exists in potential rape cases. Not only was all the footage available to the documakers — hell, it was made available, under Florida’s “sunshine” law, to anyone who requested a copy from the State Attorney’s Office — but several of those involved were willing to sit unblushingly for interviews to describe events that you’d think they’d want to put behind them ASAP.

With articulate and repentant frat bro Tony Marzullo and stripper Lisa Gier King doing most of the talking, the basics of the evening are laid out, but with the heavy-duty visual details — King’s alleged rape by skinhead Michael Yarhaus — saved for later. In between is loads of archival TV reportage, which documents King’s morning-after rape claim, her startling next-day arrest for filing a false police report after authorities decided that the tape clearly revealed consensual sex, subsequent protests from the National Organization for Women and a decision by the politically pressured State Attorney Rod Smith to release the explicit tape for all to see and decide for themselves. Interspersed are shots of Miami-based, now-22-year-old director Billy Corben chasing various state officials around demanding comment that is almost invariably unforthcoming.

Climax of the beefy Yarhaus and the less-than-trim King reveals an unappetizing combination of amateur wrestling and clumsy sex. Footage obviously will be interpreted highly subjectively, with personal/political agendas unavoidably coloring reactions; yes, Yarhaus clearly uses his weight and strength to push King around, but she eggs him on far too much verbally for her non-consent claim to hold water entirely.

Ultimately, this seems to have been a case in which, under the influence of an admitted large number of drinks, King was probably up for anything earlier in the evening but began feeling differently about her hosts in the sobering light of morning, when it was too late to wriggle out of her predicament. What this conclusion raises is the sticky question of whether consent can be given, then withdrawn later. This issue alone is enough to feed anew the talkshows and opinion pages if the picture springs into the national consciousness.

Unfortunately, this film makes the case seem even scuzzier than it already is with its overheated, incident-and-shot repeating style and ludicrous, faux-ominous music score that would be right at home on “Inside Edition” or an E! Entertainment doc show. And too many questions are left unanswered about King’s background and current domestic situation. At points in her interview, she becomes righteous about her so-called nursing career and family. But if she has two little kids somewhere as well as a husband (status of the marriage is unclear), what is she doing messing around with a bunch of frat boys in a situation that can obviously lead to what happened two years back, and with cameras rolling yet?

Compulsively watchable as it is, in the manner of a train derailment, “Raw Deal” also makes for an uncomfortable sit, mostly out of embarrassment for the people on such literally naked display; it’s difficult not to reflect on how you’d feel if someone had photographed the most shameful interlude in your life, then offered it up to the world for its delectation and/or ridicule.

Transfer from video is raw, which is as it should be.

Raw Deal: A Question of Consent

Production

An Artisan Entertainment release of a Spellman/Corben production. Produced by Alfred Spellman, Billy Corben. Executive producers, Michael Lozoff, Ruth Weisen, Claudia Kitchens, Jerry Houlihan. Directed by Billy Corben.

Crew

Camera (color, video-to-35mm), Lawrence Janus; editors, Armando Salas, Corben; music, Travis Roig; sound editor, Janus; associate producer, David Cypkin. Reviewed at Sundance Film Festival (American Spectrum), Jan. 20, 2001. Running time: 105 MIN.

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