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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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'The Imposter'
'The Imposter'

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."

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.