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Hot Docs 2011: Resurrect Dead: The Mystery of the Toynbee Tiles

Resurrect Dead: The Mystery of the Toynbee Tiles

Directed by Jon Foy

2011, USA, 88 mins.

“Toynbee idea / in Kubrick’s 2001 / resurrect dead / on planet Jupiter” – this message, appearing in colourful tiles sunk into asphalt, has appeared in cities across the US and in several in South American. Toynbee tiles have a great deal of mystery behind them – how are they made, what do they mean, and who makes them? Resurrect Dead sets out to answer some of those questions, and in doing so proves that something so inconsequential can be immersive, fascinating, and wonderful.

Call CSI?

Resurrect Dead primarily follows Justin Duerr, a Philadelphia-based artist obsessed with Toynbee Tiles, and friends Colin Smith and Steve Weinik. Though Toynbee tiles have received a great deal of attention from the conspiracy theory and paranormal crowds, these three don’t buy into the tinfoil hat brigade. Their interest is in the artist – or ‘tiler’, for lack of a better term.

It must be said that this is an incredibly well crafted documentary. It strikes a brisk pace and constantly advances the plot without neglecting characterization. It keeps interviews constant but quick, and intersperses these with footage of the team doing their detective work, graphic summaries of clues so far, and the occasional re-enactment in gorgeous pen-and-ink animated form.

Watching Resurrect Dead is, at times, like watching a crime drama. The mystery takes the team to all sorts of bizarre places – like secret parts of a short-wave radio convention, an interrupted TV broadcast, and a published David Mamet play. Like any good drama, the plot takes strange twists, the team is presented with red herrings, and suspects removed from the list are sometimes added once more.

Magical Mystery Tour

The beauty of this documentary is in its ability to make something inconsequential fascinating. It is reminiscent of King of Kong in that both documentaries present something unimportant with such vividness and intensity that we can’t help but feel involved. Jon Foy, who won the directing award at Sundance for this film, uses the deepening mystery to draw an indifferent audience in, to make them try and figure out what precisely is going on.

This is a documentary for anyone with a love of things weird and strange – but also for anyone who enjoys a good mystery. You don’t need to know or care what a Toynbee tile is to enjoy this documentary, because such a well-told mystery demands attention.

– Dave Robson

Hot Docs runs from April 28th through May 8th.

Visit the official website for the festival.