Article by: Coop Cooper
A.K.A. The Small Town Critic
Feature documentaries usually fall under three categories: Biography, historical, nature and politics. For me, all four have limited appeal. I will watch them occasionally except for the ones with obvious/shrill political agendas. There is a fifth genre of documentary that is more rare but when done right, can be the most enjoyable to watch… the solvable mystery documentary.
In order to truly satisfy, these docs must satisfy a few criteria: 1. It must be based in reality and potentially solvable (no convoluted conspiracy theories, no Nostradamus/Ancient Aztec predictions and no phonies trying to fake a bigfoot/ghost/alien sighting) 2. It must not have been solved by police before the documentary was made and spoiled by the national news (no “Dateline: NBC” murder mysteries) 3. It must be a original mystery with the filmmakers actively working to solve it.
Not many – if any – of these types of films immediately spring to mind. A few fake documentaries or “mockumentaries” would certainly fit the bill if they were actually real. My most recent favorite of the mockumentaries is a chilling film called “Lake Mungo” about an Australian family whose teen daughter drowns under mysterious circumstances and the film crew documents them as her image starts appearing in their photos and videos. It was so well done, with so many interesting twists and turns, it could have almost passed for the real thing. An even wilder, similarly-themed mockumentary is the Norwegian film “Troll Hunter” which is scheduled for an American remake and must be seen to be believed. There was even one that was almost brilliant called “Lunopolis” about doc filmmakers unwittingly uncovering evidence of time travelers and cites on the moon. Alas, there is a glut of bad mockumentaries and most are “Blair Witch Project” knockoffs not worth anyone’s time.
One (actually real) solvable mystery documentary I have seen recently stands out far above the rest. “Resurrect Dead: The Mystery of the Toynbee Tiles” (2011) begins with a very out-in-the-open mystery about a series of tiled messages somehow inlaid in the asphalt of Philadelphia streets, and as we soon find out, in many North and South American cities. The tiles read, “TOYNBEE IDEA, IN MOVIE ‘2001, RESURRECT DEAD, ON PLANET JUPITER” along with some equally strange postscripts. Some theorists suspect an otherworldly origin while others believe it’s simply the most ambitious and lengthy guerrilla street art project ever conceived. Obsessive amateur sleuths Justin Duerr, Colin Smith and Steve Weinik join forces to find out what the tiles mean, who is installing them and how are they have done it without anyone noticing since the first one appeared in 1983.
The film is an exciting roller coaster ride as the team uncovers clue after clue, leading them to research Stanley Kubrick’s film “2001: A Space Odyssey” and David Mamet’s 1983 short play “4 a.m.” which references exact details from the tiles’ content. At every twist and turn, the filmmakers are faced with revelations more bizarre and interesting than the last. Eventually, they uncover some fascinating truths about the tiles, giving the audience just enough to satisfy, but not enough to stop them from wondering.
I was so enthralled by “Resurrect Dead” and the experience of discovering the mystery, I immediately tried to find other films like it. Nothing. You look for “mystery” documentaries, you get films about the “Loch Ness Monster” and “The Lost City of Atlantis.” You google “creepy” or “scary” documentaries, you get search results for films like “Jesus Camp” and “Loose Change.”
My thirst for this type of documentary is not slaked and I know there must be some more out there like it, I simply have to find them. If somehow there aren’t, someone better start finding some solvable mysteries, get out their camera and start researching.
If anybody has any interesting local mysteries (nothing violent that the police should be handling), feel free to get in touch with me at email@example.com. If it’s good enough, who knows… I might start making my own documentary.
Rating for “Resurrect Dead: The Mystery of the Toynbee Tiles”: 5 out of 5 stars