Category: Documentary

The Imposter

This is a tough one to review – I want to say loads about it, it’s one of those films that I immediately googled when I got home to find out more about. To say too much here would be to risk spoilering on a grand scale, but it’s not giving anything away to say that Bart Layton’s first film is superbly made, expertly paced and completely gripping.

It’s a strange story from the start – a 23-year-old French man (Frederic Bourdin) masquerades as a teenager so that he can be put into care homes, claiming to have been subjected to terrible sexual abuse to gain sympathy and to stop people getting too close (and presumably spotting his five o’clock shadow). This in itself is odd. But the story becomes markedly stranger when, having been taken into a Spanish care home, he claims to be Nicholas Barclay, a 14-year-old from Texas who has been missing for three years. Both the Spanish authorities and the FBI believe this despite Bourdin having the wrong colour hair and eyes and a pronounced French accent. And strangest of all, the family of the missing boy believe him and welcome him into their San Antonio home. And so the weirdness begins.

This incredible story is told partly through artily reconstructed footage and also through interviews with Bourdin and the Barclay family. Bourdin is a slightly unnerving presence who has his own opinion on why the Barclays were so ready to believe him. He tells his story very articulately (though he has a long history of grand-scale fibbing), and boy does he love telling it. The Barclays are a bit like extras from Fargo – which is not to say they are entirely stupid, they have plenty of reasonable explanations for not recognising their own flesh and blood. Maybe to face up to the truth would be like losing Nicholas all over again. The story swirls around, prodded by a local private investigator straight out of central casting who has his own theory on what happened to Nicholas and doesn’t believe anyone – you soon realise that while everything you’re seeing is completely plausible, it’s equally likely to be untrue.

Layton tells this incredible story with immense skill, building to a climax that in reality is still to come while keeping you mesmerised throughout. You can’t help but laugh at some of the archive footage of Bourdin with his badly bleached hair and ridiculous disguise of sunglasses, a scarf pulled up high over his face and a hat pulled down low. You find some parts hard to believe, and some parts hard not to believe. But you never forget that at its heart, this is a tragic story about a lost boy.

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Searching for Sugar Man

A new documentary from Malik Bendjelloul tells the (slightly old now) story of a lost 60s singer/songwriter Sixto Rodriguez. More mislaid than lost, truthfully.

Rodriguez was discovered playing with his back to the audience in a downtown bar in Detroit in the early 60s. Music execs snapped him up, sensing a new Bob Dylan but despite producing a couple of strong albums, Rodriguez sank without trace and the record company soon forgot him. Well, he thought he sank without trace,  but in the pre-world wide web era it was easy not to notice he’d become a star reputedly bigger than Elvis in South Africa where his edgy songwriting became the protest music of a generation growing up under the apartheid regime.

Because nobody back in the US knew how well he was doing (apparently), Rodriguez never toured there, there were no personal appearances or any of the usual promotional palaver and when the music dried up after the second album, it’s easy to see how the rumour he had committed suicide on stage became widely believed. The story fascinated a South African record shop owner and a music journalist who made it a bit of a mission to track down the real story of what happened to their hero.

I don’t think it’s too much of a spoiler to say he turns up – though I won’t say more, because there are some surprises in store once we meet Rodriguez and fill in a bit of the background. Artistic licence has given the film more of an emotional punch than it maybe deserved,  but it’s sensitively done and turns the story into something joyous and heartwarming. It’s a revealing tale of fame at a time when singing for Simon Cowell seems the only way to make it – this isn’t really about fame, although clearly Rodriguez is rightly enjoying some right now – it’s more a reminder of how not being famous can be just as rewarding and how real talent will find its voice eventually.

Searching for Sugar Man is a beautifully filmed and exquisitely paced documentary – the partly animated scenes of downtown Detroit are stunning and it’s peppered with some fascinating interviews from the execs who worked with Rodriguez and seemed none the wiser about his overseas success. Of course there is the question of what happened to all his royalties, and a deeply uncomfortable interview with Motown boss Clarence Avant seems to answer this, although it’s probably a little unfair to shout ‘thief’ and point at him when there must have been a few people profiting from this remarkable man. Still, I wanted to shout ‘thief’ and point at him as he shifted uncomfortably in his seat under questioning.

It’s the one dark spot in a warm and life affirming film which fascinates from beginning to end. Of course I immediately found the soundtrack on Spotify when I got home and am listening to it now. It’s quite beautiful.

Mission to Lars

Now I’ll freely confess to being a bit of a soft touch when it comes to weepy films. I once caused a commotion on a Virgin Atlantic flight by becoming properly hysterical at the end of Dancer in the Dark, and regularly have to make a dash for the lavs at the end of a film to reapply my eyeliner. So on a scale of one to ten where one is a bit misty eyed and 10 is Dancer in the Dark, I’d put Mission to Lars in at a healthy eight. Proper sobbing but no medics were summoned. (Probably fair to mention I also just filled up looking at the trailer.)

Mission to Lars is a documentary made by brother and sister Will and Kate Spicer – Will is a filmmaker and Kate a journalist. Their brother Tom has Fragile X, a harsh kind of autism, and he’s lived in a care home for most of his adult life, giving them few opportunities to build much of a relationship. Tom has an obsession with Lars Ulrich, the drummer from Metallica, so Kate – for reasons you find hard to fathom when you consider the practicalities – convinces Will that it’s a good idea to take him to the States and try to fulfil his lifelong dream of meeting him. This despite not having much of an idea whether Lars will be up for it and of course, having to accept the fact that even if he says yes, Tom might say no. He says that a lot.

Not surprisingly, this isn’t an easy trip, in fact it starts off with Tom doing a runner before he’s even left home. When the Spicers arrive at the first Metallica gig in Vegas Tom point blank refuses to go and ends up in a laundromat with Will trying to wash his smalls while Kate bangs her head at the gig (probably in more ways than one). It’s one of many frustrations, Kate and Will have several fractious exchanges as they travel between shows in their camper van – as someone who spent several childhood holidays in a VW caravanette I can sympathise with the joy of being stuck in a small space with your nearest and dearest. A small space that smells of wee and vomit.

I won’t spoil things by telling you whether the Mission to Lars succeeds, but following the Spicers on their journey is a real pleasure with plenty of funny moments to stop it being at all mawkish. It’s a story about how hard it is to get what you want – sometimes the thing you most desire is the thing you’re most afraid of getting. We’ve all been there, and these emotions are all the more devastating for Tom it seems. But it’s also a story about trying to rebuild relationships that have been cracked apart by something you don’t really understand – and about coming to terms with the realisation that the balance of familial responsibility inexorably shifts as you get older (all three are heading towards middle age).

This is a joyous, heartwarming film that you can’t fail to love – and if you aren’t crying like a baby by the end you need to take a long hard look at yourself. Even better is the fact that some of the profits are going to Mencap.

This is a great piece about the film from Kate Kellaway in The Observer

Tabloid

Towards the end of Tabloid I properly got the giggles – the story became so ridiculously bonkers that I just lost it. This is the story of the Beauty Queen and the Manacled Mormon – a tale of obsessive love, kidnapping, rape, pornography and cloning, which filled pages and pages of the tabloid press in Britain during the latter part of the 70s. The beauty queen in question, Joyce McKinney, has her knives out for director Errol Morris, claiming he misrepresented the film to her to get her to take part – she’s suing him and has been turning up at us screenings to heckle. Brilliant. McKinney is obviously not impressed with her portrayal as the sex in chains hooker and the reappearance of the journalists who exposed her for this at the time, when she was presenting herself as a lovelorn rescuer of poor Mormon boys, cutting them free of their protective undercrackers for their own good. She had converted to Mormonism to find herself a nice husband, and she wasn’t about to let him escape.

Morris tells the story with a healthy nod to the farcical side of what went on, from taking a troupe of bodyguards to the UK to kidnap Kirk Anderson (the manacled Mormon in question), to the tabloid frenzy after her arrest and her release on bail which she spent upstaging Joan Collins and kissing rock stars. Then there’s the cloning, which I won’t spoil here, but which is the point at which I totally lost it. McKinney gives good testimony, she’s had a long time to perfect it – maybe she genuinely believes it herself, and certainly the truth isn’t as cut and dried as the papers reported. But boy, did it sell papers.

Fascinating, brilliantly told and not one to eat a bag of crisps during (please note this if you were the man sat behind me in Curzon Soho) – this is a skilled look at the nature of celebrity culture and the impact of obsessive love and a timely insight into an industry that has almost eaten itself.

There’s a great piece on this story in the Guardian.

Into the Abyss: A Tale of Death, A Tale of Life

Werner Herzog’s take on death row is one of my festival top three. It’s done in his own unique style and although it’s clear he opposes the system, you get to see all sides of the argument from the prisoners to the families of the victims to the executioner. Herzog, a bit like Nick Broomfield, has the knack of getting his subjects to really open up to him in a short space of time, whether it’s the slightly bumbling sounding questioning or some sort of documentary making magic powder, whatever it is, it works. ‘Please describe an encounter with a squirrel’ for example, leads to some of the most moving testimony from the death row chaplain. There is plenty to chew on here, although the grim facts of the case – that three people were murdered because two not very intelligent young men wanted their cars – are hard to argue with and Herzog doesn’t shy away from showing the brutal reality of the crimes.

Apparently Herzog’s initial plan was to focus on a few different inmates, but having stumbled on Michael Perry he obviously decided there was more than enough material in his story. And indeed there is. Perry was convicted of three homicides with his friend Jason Burkett. Burkett’s father, a lifelong jail inhabitee himself, made an impassioned speech in court and managed to save Jason from death row but Perry wasn’t so lucky and we meet him a week before his execution date. He’s a childlike and not particularly likeable man who has never admitted his guilt and whose conversion to christianity seems to have expunged any fear of death. It’s a shame we don’t hear more from him, although whether there is any more depth to him than Herzog finds through the glass wall in the prison is debateable.

Everyone in the film has a remarkable and terrible story – one woman’s list of the dreadful things that had befallen her nearest and dearest in the space of a few years was so unrelenting it sent a ripple of laughter round the audience. And the revelation towards the end of the film that Burkett has fathered a child from within prison raises all sorts of questions about smuggling and turkey basters that thankfully we don’t get too much information on.

Herzog has found himself in the centre of a whirlwind of crime and tragedy which only abates when we meet the man whose job it was to oversee the executions. To him, it was a day job which he took pride in doing well until, after he executed his first female prisoner (and 125th in total), he had a breakdown and quit his job immediately – now he’s a very vocal opponent of the death penalty. It’s pretty clear from the stories here that it doesn’t exactly act as a deterrent.

There’s so much to think about here, and it’s dealt with in a style that sometimes makes you want to look away and sometimes makes you laugh – it’s hard not to see the justice system here as anything but barbaric, but Herzog lets his subjects tell you that, even though sometimes they don’t realise they are saying it.

Dreams of a Life


Joyce Vincent’s body was found in a small flat over the Shopping City in Wood Green after lying dead for three years. Her skeletal remains were surrounded by the Christmas presents she’d been wrapping and the telly was still on, tuned to BBC1. It’s one of those stories you can’t help dwelling on – how awful, for someone to have been lying there all that time, while we were all buying pants and toothpaste just minutes away. So I was keen to see Carol Morley’s film, it seemed like she was as intrigued as I was by the fact that someone can just drop off the radar of life. Like most people, I assumed it must be a loner, a druggie – someone who society had been happy to let disappear.

The truth couldn’t be more different and, setting aside the question of how Joyce might have felt about her life being the subject of such scrutiny, the story – told through her friends and colleagues, is poignant and at times heartbreaking. I was a bit worried about the dramatic reconstructions, which can often be a bit naff, but here Zawe Ashton has done a terrific job of bringing spirit and warmth to the mysterious dead woman. It’s a perfectly judged performance and one that takes the film out of the realm of the usual drama-doc and into something more.

Morley did an amazing job of tracking down Joyce’s story, something her family and even the press hadn’t managed to do. Thanks to her determination, we hear from friends who knew a very different girl to the one left alone for so long, and their stories really make you wonder what can have gone so wrong in her life. We do have a fair idea of course, but there are plenty of unanswered questions – her relationship with her family, the fiance who didn’t want to be filmed, not least the authorities that forgot her. The story is fascinating and unbearably sad and it’s a testament to the skills of all involved that at the end, the blurry clip that Morley finally uncovered of Joyce with Nelson Mandela can’t help but bring a tear to your eye. As the credits play out to a soundtrack of her singing, you’re already wondering if that could happen to you, or someone you know.

Along with Into The Abyss, this is one of the films from the festival that stayed with me long after I’d left the cinema – I wandered through the shopping city today and couldn’t help looking up to the miserable flat she spent her last days in. We never really find out why she ended up there, and why she seems to have cut herself off from anyone who cared about her, and we probably never will. But thanks to Carol Morley, she won’t be forgotten again.

Dark Horse

I love Todd Solondz – his movies are renowned for tackling some of society’s trickiest issues, and he manages to do it with sensitivity and humour. Interestingly, Dark Horse (which has yet to pick up a distribution deal in the UK) is his first attempt to, as he  puts it, make a film without masturbation or paedophiles. But to be honest, I think a bit of wanking might have helped here.

Dark Horse has a lot of the classic Solondz touches, misfits, loneliness and awkward relationships with a good few laughs too – and for the first half at least, it’s a very watchable movie. Richard and Miranda do their best to fall in love so they can escape their miserable home lives (both are well on their way to middle age and still living with their parents).  It’s clear that Richard has little aptitude for – or interest in – work and his main focus in life is in adding to his collection of superhero figures. Their story is quite sweet, but for me the second half of the film lost its way entirely and when it ended in a flurry of confusing hallucinations, I lost interest. I wanted to find some sort of point in it all, but there wasn’t one.

On the plus side, it does have strong performances, not least from Mia Farrow and Christopher Walken and the two leads (Selma Blair and Justin Bartha) are excellent. And there are some laughs. But for me, this is Solondz-lite. Maybe he needs to dip back into the darkness a bit next time.

Sarah Palin: You Betcha!

I spent 20 minutes alone with Nick Broomfield once, and in half that time he had winkled pretty much my whole life story out of me. So it’s easy to see how he manages to persuade his interviewees to spill so many beans – he’s a proper charmer. And he sat right in front of me for this screening which was nice.

If you like the Broomfield style, you’ll enjoy this one – and even though Palin has spoiled the party by announcing she won’t run for President, it’s still a fascinating film. Who knows how much impact it had on her decision – she clearly still has a lot of support and it sounded a bit like the crew were pretty much run out of town after poking their cameras a bit too far into her murky business. No surprises that Palin is a bit of a power crazed biatch, but the interviews with ex colleagues and friends do shed a bit of grim light on the treatment she has dished out to anyone brave enough to stand in her way.

It did feel like a shame that she never agreed to be interviewed for the film, but  it works well even without her. Am guessing this will pop up as one of More4’s True Stories before long, so well worth popping on your sky plus.