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The Art of the Mystery Doc: Must-Sees ‘Searching for Sugar Man’ and ‘The Imposter’

The Art of the Mystery Doc: Must-Sees 'Searching for Sugar Man' and 'The Imposter'

Festival faves “The Imposter” (Indomina, July 13) and “Searching for Sugar Man” (Sony Pictures Classics, July 27) are two hit Sundance docs that play like features. In other words, their directors cannily manipulate their stories so that we are left in the dark, eagerly following clues, seeking the answer to various mysteries that unfold in delightful and surprising ways. Both of these films reveal expert filmmakers who know what tidbits to unspool and when to withhold information. It’s worked since the dawn of storytelling.

By the time they get in the editing room, they know the answers. But they also know how much fun it is for us to find out as we go. The big danger is that various reviews and descriptions will give too much away. That’s one advantage of discovering these films in a festival setting.

Point is, these crowd-pleasers remind us that docs no longer have to be dull, expository explorations of world issues (as worthy as some of those films may be). They can be crazy fun.

Bart Layton’s “The Imposter” is an amazing truth-is-stranger-than-fiction tale about a poseur who infiltrates a Texas family, and building on what they want to be true, pretends to be the three-years-older version of a boy who had disappeared. Astonishingly, his hair and eyes don’t match–he doesn’t even look or sound like the original kid, nor is he believably sixteen years old. And yet these people accept this emotionally needy stranger into the bosom of their family. Why do they do this? And who is he, exactly? These are the mysteries that unfold.

“Searching for Sugar Man” took Swedish music documentarian Malik Bendjelloul, 34, five years to make, he said at SXSW. It’s his first feature. After shooting short biodocs on Bjork, Sting, Rod Stewart and Elton John (he now has a Prince concert in the can), as well as docs that provided the source material for “The Men Who Stare at Goats” and “The Terminal,” Bendjelloul traveled around Africa and South Africa for six months looking for a great story to film. Out of six possibles, the one he finally pursued was “the best story I ever heard,” he said.

The film about disappeared 70s Mexican-American folk rocker Rodriguez was supposed to just show on Swedish TV, but the same night that it opened the Sundance Fest, SPC scooped it up. The doc won both audience and special jury prizes. Bendjelloul discovered that Rodriguez was a huge star in South Africa, as big as Dylan or Hendrix; he was the South African Elvis. Somehow his soft ballads had hit the anti-Apartheid zeitgeist; he was the spokesman for a generation, a household name, who sold countless records. But no one had seen the man in three decades; his Sussex record label had gone bankrupt 35 years ago. So Bendjelloul went in search of him. The movie reveals what he found, and is unaccountably moving.

Layton first read about “The Chameleon” in a Spanish magazine, followed by The New Yorker and The Guardian. They weren’t just telling the Texas story; it was about how a lonely orphan turned into such a con artist that he was tracked by Interpol. (Their files inform the movie.) “What kind of human being could perpetuate a con like that and how did the family fall victim to it?” said Layton at SXSW. “We went on a slightly bewildering journey.”

The key to the way the filmmakers structured the film was to recognize that “truth is elusive,” said Layton. “That was the confusing journey we went on. You interview members of the cast, think you understand what happened, and come away the next day with a diametrically opposed conclusion. So the audience goes on the same journey. We all believe what we want to believe. We’re not trying to find one definitive answer. It’s about our subjective versions of the truth.”

Even a gullible FBI agent went along for the ride. But not Charlie Parker, the film’s unlikely hero, a stubborn local private dick who figures out pretty quick that the imposter is not who he says he is. Parker played well to the SXSW crowd; he took his bows to rousing applause after seeing the film for the first time.

Even while the Texas family look pretty foolish, they went along with the movie and its elaborate reenactments, made possible by masses of archive footage of many of the participants, said Layton, who shot the film he saw in his head when he heard the various versions of the story. “This isn’t truth. It’s subjective hyper-reality. It’s dreamlike. It’s follow-over-their-shoulder through their memory.”

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