It's famously said that "truth is stranger than fiction," but if the reflux of utterly expected 'reality' TV available at any given time is any indication, most producers have forgotten that wisdom at this point. Even in film, the prospect of a fine documentary has become almost haunted by the specter of activism, a hidden (and often not-so-hidden) agenda that propels funding as well viewership, but ultimately has very little to do with the craft of filmmaking as such.
At risk of having my co-op card pulled, I should say now that I enjoy a good "awareness" doc as much as the next informed San Franciscan, but am rapidly losing track of the number of times I've been dragged down the rabbit hole by an Activist In Wonderland beguiled by the notion that their cause will somehow be best served on celluloid, perhaps accompanied by a jaunty voiceover read by [insert celebrity here]. It's yet more astonishing, then, that this weekend promises not one but two incredible documentaries with stories more tortuous than anything out at the Metreon and not a hint of handwringing to be found. Since every dog has its day, perhaps it's time for a new aphorism to be writ large in the iPhone notes of casual moviegoers: Documentary is the new fiction.
If you've somehow managed (as I did) to go into it without reading some of the generous news coverage of the 1994 disappearance of 13-year old Nicolas Barclay or watching the 2008 film based on his shocking re-appearance, The Imposter is a hell of a yarn. It begins when three years following his disappearance Barclay appears, 5,000 miles from his Texas home, in Spain. Once his family makes first contact, it's apparent that something is amiss–his hair has changed colors and he is much older than he should be–but the family's will to believe in his reappearance steamrolls any doubt (and a number of well-meaning government agents). As it becomes increasingly obvious that 'Nicolas' is not who he says he is, the family's denial and the imposter's own testimony lead officials (and audiences) to suspect that they may be hiding the truth from someone bigger than just themselves. Director Burt Layton has amazingly convinced not only the imposter, Frenchman Frédéric "The Chameleon" Bourdin, but Barclay's entire family to appear on camera, and with a remarkably even hand delivers a series of countervailing moments of shock that continually eclipse each other until "the truth" is a distant memory. It's an incredible thriller for those in the dark, and the meticulous camerawork, artful re-enactments and enthralling tempo make it more than worthwhile for those who know the tale–or think they know it. Plays at Lumiere Theatre, 1572 California Street (415) 267-4893.
"Bob Dylan or Leonard Cohen?" is a question that I imagine has been posed incessantly in freshman dorms nationwide for the preceding 20 years, if not longer. Malik Bendjelloul's Searching for Sugarman asks audiences to imagine a third option: An unknown, zen-leaning Chicano folk singer named Rodriguez who hasn't been heard in America for 30 years, then defies all (warranted) cynicism by proving it to be fact–or Cold Fact, as his first album, now regarded by many as a 'lost' classic of the era, is titled.
Produced by the same people as Stevie Wonder and Marvin Gaye and considered by them to be possibly the greatest artist of his generation, Rodriguez cut two amazing records in the late 1960s and promptly sunk back into obscurity after a lukewarm market ignored him. Across the world in Cape Town, however, he struck a particular chord with the youth during the anti-aparthied movement and did indeed become the kind of legend presaged by his producers–a household name on equal footing with the Beatles and The Rolling Stones. In geographically remote, pre-Google South Africa, wild rumors circulated of Rodriguez's demise–hung in his home; a junkie dead on the streets; self-immolated, live on stage–but no one actually knows what has become of him. Years later, the obsession of one music journalist and a lawyer leads them down the wormhole of big label royalty payments and to their surprise, they find that Rodriguez picks up the line at the other end, alive and kicking. It's difficult to fathom a story like this in a time where the internet does its best to convince us that we know everything, and it's even harder to figure out how we could miss music this good for so long. As Director Bendjelloul offered: "It's hard to find those really rare stories but when you think about it, if there's a thing that only happens once in 6 billion, it happens every day." Here's hoping someone finds it more often. Plays at Embarcadero Theaters, 1 Embarcadero Center, (415) 267-4893.