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

Photo of Anne Thompson By Anne Thompson | Thompson on Hollywood June 21, 2012 at 5:50PM

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 manipulate their stories so that we are left in the dark, eagerly following clues, seeking the answer to mysteries that unfold in surprising ways.
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'Searching for Sugar Man'
Sony Pictures Classics 'Searching for Sugar Man'
Malik Bendjelloul
Malik Bendjelloul
Bart Layton
Bart Layton

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.

This article is related to: Festivals, Searching for Sugar Man, The Imposter, Festivals, Sundance 2012, Interviews, Interviews


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Thompson on Hollywood

Born and raised in Manhattan, Anne Thompson grew up going to the Thalia and The New Yorker and wound up at grad Cinema Studies at NYU. She worked at United Artists and Film Comment before heading west as that magazine's west coast editor. She wrote for the LA Weekly, Sight and Sound, Empire, The New York Times and Entertainment Weekly before serving as West Coast Editor of Premiere. She wrote for The Washington Post, The London Observer, Wired, More, and Vanity Fair, and did staff stints at The Hollywood Reporter and Variety. She eventually took her blog Thompson on Hollywood to Indiewire. She taught film criticism at USC Critical Studies, and continues to host the fall semester of “Sneak Previews” for UCLA Extension.