BOOTLEG FILES 276: “The Star Wars Kid” (2002 viral video of a chubby teenager as a Jedi)

LAST SEEN: It is all over the Net.


REASON FOR BOOTLEG STATUS: A viral video that has spread too far and too wide.


I was recently interviewed for a student project, and I was asked about the subject of cult films. I stated it was my opinion that there are no more cult films – not if you define the genre in terms of “Rocky Horror Picture Show” or “Eraserhead.” The nature of film distribution and television broadcasting no longer enables under-the-radar films to harvest genuine cult followings.

But if cult films aren’t being created anymore, something else has taken their place: viral videos. These have become the digital era’s answer to the midnight movie or the “Late, Late Show” on local television: offbeat, often perverse bits of weirdness that gain a word-of-mouth following without the aid of a publicist’s prodding or the clever machinations of a well-moneyed corporate machine. Depending solely on the mania and fervor of the cult audience, these McNuggets of entertainment can find their way into the popular culture through the sheer love of those who devote themselves to cult worship.

If there is a god in the viral video world, it would be a boy in Quebec named Ghyslain Raza. However, he would be a highly reluctant god – as almost every Net surfer knows by now, Raza was the subject of a prank that made him the focus of international attention and more than a few laughs. He was – and always will be – the Star Wars Kid.

Raza’s cult following was a series of bad ideas that followed in a disastrous skein. Back on November 2, 2002, the 14-year-old Raza found himself alone in his school’s video lab. Setting up a video camera and grabbing a golf ball retriever, he decided to act out a “Star Wars”-worthy light saber duel. Raza provided his own sound effects, which were mostly whooshing news that he heaved while he swung his weapon about.

The first mistake, of course, was the decision by Raza to videotape himself. No one would mistake him for Mark Hamill – his movements were wildly spastic to the point of inanity, and at several moments it looked as if he would topple over amidst his shadow duel. Being more than a few pounds heavier than the average Jedi warrior, Raza cut a circular comic figure as he battled enemies of his own creation.

The second mistake was the video itself – Raza taped over a basketball game that was videotaped by one of his classmates. Why he didn’t decide to use a blank tape is a mystery. Equally mysterious was his decision to leave the video in the lab, where the tape’s original owner found it later. The discovery of the plus-size Jedi video provoked laughter, and Raza’s classmate shared it with others. One of those who saw the video had it digitized and put it online at the Kazaa peer-to-peer site; it was also placed on a personal web site. Within two weeks, the Kazaa site registered several million downloads of the video. Four years after Raza twirled his golf ball retriever/saber, the video was viewed 900 million times. The Viral Factory, a Net marketing agency, named it the most popular viral video on the Net – which brought more attention to Raza.

Not surprisingly, Raza and his parents did not appreciate this new attention – especially since it mostly came with howls of laughter at the boy’s uncoordinated gyrations. Raza was transferred to another school amid claims of harassment by his peers. His parents later sued the families of the classmates who posted the video online, and their case was settled out of court in 2006.

In fairness, not everyone held Raza up to ridicule. An online effort was made to buy him an Apple iPod and to get him a part in George Lucas’ final “Star Wars” film. Raza got the iPod, but Lucas preferred Hayden Christiansen as the focus of his camera.

Still, the bulk of the attention received by Raza was patently cruel. Several doctored versions of the video emerged: one substituted the golf ball retriever with a glowing light saber, another cast Raza’s actions against John Williams’ stirring “Star Wars” theme music, while another used the raucous “Yakkety Sax” instrumental piece (best known as Benny Hill’s theme music) as the soundtrack to Raza’s camera time. One web site has 38 different versions of this video. Variations of Raza’s actions and appearance have also been repeated in several television comedy shows.

But why, of all the stuff online, did the Star Wars Kid connect with Net surfers? In many ways, people may be looking at the Net and seeing a mirror. What person, at some point of their life, didn’t wish they could be a movie character? I am reminded of Cary Grant’s observation on the public fascination about his suave movie persona: “Everybody wants to be Cary Grant. Even I want to be Cary Grant!”

If Raza wanted to be Luke Skywalker, he was hardly alone. But most people are alone when they play out their daydreams. Whether it involves singing in the shower in a Sinatra or Streisand style, reciting lines from “The Godfather” or “Casablanca,” or practicing cigarette smoking in Bette Davis high style, the retreat into cinematic fantasy is a solitary endeavor. There isn’t supposed to be an audience for that kind of make-believe.

Alas, Raza was not alone – the video camera caught his daydreams and exposed his fantasy world to anyone with a modem. It was a vicious twist of fate that put him in our viewfinder – but the joke is not on Raza. If anything, the scorn deserves to go to those who bootleg the video and pass it about to a seemingly endless number of web sites or email it to friends and acquaintances. Their actions are not about spreading entertainment, but using someone’s misfortune and clumsiness as a means to a cheap laugh.

Having fun at someone else’s misfortune is not acceptable (especially if that someone is a minor), and knowing that Raza experienced severe bouts of depression based on this incident can raise a smile only from a sadist. If the video enjoys a cult following, it says nothing about the subject of the video – but it speaks volumes about those who share in pointing and laughing at the would-be teenage Jedi.

To date, Raza has not exploited his Net fame for quickie commercial gain. For that display of class in the face of crass behavior, I can say to Raza: may the Force be with you!

IMPORTANT NOTICE: The unauthorized duplication and distribution of copyright-protected material, either for crass commercial purposes or profit-free s***s and giggles, is not something that the entertainment industry appreciates. On occasion, law enforcement personnel boost their arrest quotas by collaring cheery cinephiles engaged in such activities. So if you are going to copy and distribute bootleg videos and DVDs, a word to the wise: don’t get caught. Oddly, the purchase and ownership of bootleg videos is perfectly legal. Go figure!

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