Not nearly as ominous as its title, this debut feature from Durham filmmaker Jason Mitchell is an ambitious and informative survey of punk America. For a group of anti-authoritarians, punks are surprisingly willing to embrace caste definitions, and Mitchell's film breaks them down into four main groups: Skinheads, Straightedge, Black Metal and Zealots. Although music is associated with these groups, Dark Planet is primarily interested in why kids choose the tribes (which sometimes function as substitute families) they do, and how they identify the values of their own particular punk culture. Inevitably, Dark Planet is less a film about punk music than punk as a lifestyle option.
Mitchell's survey across the nation's punk underground reveals new and sometimes Talmudic wrinkles: Partisans of straightedge (punks who don't drink, smoke or have casual sex) discuss whether "vegan straightedge" is a legitimate movement, and the Black Metalheads discuss their even more extreme brethren, the Suicide Metalheads.
Still, the film's most fascinating revelation is the emergence of Christian punks who call themselves the Zealots, perhaps after the original Jewish rabble-rousers who died en masse at the Masada 2000 years ago. These kids might be considered red state punks--they've found sustenance in religion and the gospels, and the young women interviewed (including Jason Mitchell's wife Patricia) talk about their hopes for marriage and disavow any feminist leanings.
For Mitchell, the subject is a personal one. In his film, he includes his own spiritual evolution from teenage dissolution. In 1997, a light went on when he heard a straightedge anthem, and he became a cleaner-living punk and, eventually, a filmmaker.
Dark Planet: Visions of America will be screened at Durham's Carolina Theatre on Nov. 30 at 7 and 9:30 p.m.