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Searching for Searching for Sugar Man

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Heisenberg haunts every documentary movie. The viewer never knows how the presence of the camera has affected what he or she is seeing. But we can always be sure that it has. Even static pictures of non-human scenes, events, and occurrences can of course look different from each other depending on point of view, lens selection, lighting, editing, and so on. And after the glow of the huge hit movie Searching for Sugar Man wears off a little -- it is a fabulous (in both senses of the word) movie -- and you begin thinking about it, a multitude of Heisenbergian questions arise:

1. Why is there no presence of or reference to the wife or wives of Sixto Rodriguez -- an American singer/songwriter who was hugely influential in South Africa in the '70s, and the central figure of the film? His three daughters appear in onscreen interviews, all of them charming and articulate and affecting, one of them completely bewitching. Where's the missus? No reference to her (or them) at all? Weird.

2. How journalistically honest is it to present the mystery of a seeming disappearance as if it were close to a fact when it may or may not be? That is, how much can a filmmaker and his or her editor manipulate the time frame of the events and people in question in order to introduce an element of suspense and surprise?

3. Were any conditions set by the interviewees in the film, and what were they? One interview in particular -- of Clarence Avant, an American record executive who may have handled Rodriguez's royalties -- is particularly mystifying. He seems as though he might be a financial arch villain, even shedding what struck me as being highly crocodilian tears. The truncation of the interview may indicate nefarious behavior. But it may not. You don't know. And you don't know what the filmmakers do or don't know.

4. Did nothing happen between the disappearance of Rodriguez and the revelations in this movie? If things did happen, are they omitted in order to give the story a drama it would not otherwise have had?

5. There are down-and-out shots of someone important in Detroit trudging ostensibly to work and back through the snow. Were these shots staged? The work -- dirty cleanup and rudimentary construction work -- shows up only briefly, when it supposedly represents a kind of humility and perseverance on the part of the person involved

6. And so on.

I guess all such questions can be summed up by "Is this a documentary film or more nearly a docudrama?" All documentaries raise some similar questions (another of my favorites, Buck, comes to mind), but this one raises them in a way that seems deliberate. That is, the movie struck me as being ultimately about itself -- its methods, its structure, its own nature: beyond its presumptive subject. It's as though there were an off-camera, off-soundtrack meta-character asking the audience to do more than simply enjoy and be surprised and gratified by the film. The movie struck me as being about narrative and about, well, truth. Whether this is what the director, Malik Bendjelloul, a Swede, had in mind doesn't matter. If it raises such questions for you, as it did for me, then what he thinks or intended or didn't intend doesn't matter.