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SUNDANCE: Why 'Resurrect Dead' Filmmaker Grappled With Cryptic-Message Investigation

Director Joy Foy struggled with whether releasing the film would bring unwanted attention to the man he believes is the person behind the mystery tiles.

"Toynbee Idea in Movie 2001. Resurrect Dead on Planet Jupiter."

That cryptic message, which references historian Arnold J. Toynbee, 2001: A Space Odyssey and bringing the dead back to life, has been emblazoned on hundreds of tiles laid in city streets across the eastern United States and elsewhere over the past three decades. Unraveling the meaning of the message and ferreting out the person behind the tiles is the subject of the documentary Resurrect Dead: The Mystery of the Toynbee Tiles, which had its world premiere at Sundance on Monday afternoon at Holiday Village Cinema.

The documentary, directed by Jon Foy, begins as a straightforward account of a search to uncover the mystery of the tiles, but by the end of the film, Resurrect Dead has morphed into a meditation on human nature and a character study of the man who appears most intent on uncovering the truth.

That sleuth, artist Justin Duerr, is the film's awkward and endearing protagonist. He and two friends head up the search for the identity of the person behind the tiles, many of which are embedded in Philadelphia-area streets. While the ending won't be revealed here, suffice it to say, other things become more important to Duerr and his colleagues than exposing the mysterious -- and highly reclusive -- individual who creates the tiles.

At the Q&A following the Tuesday night screening of the film at Prospector Square Theatre, Foy said he grappled with the idea of shelving Resurrect Deadduring the more than five years it took to make the film. At issue: whether releasing the film would bring unwanted attention to the man he and the trio of investigators believes is the person behind the tiles.

"The tiles are a public enough thing, and he did put it in public, so we felt we had the right to tell (the story)," Foy said of his ultimate decision to the release.

Duerr's quest to track down the person behind the tiles leads him and his friends (Steve Weinik and Colin Smith) down a path that somehow ensnares playwright David Mamet, shortwave radio fanatics and a cast of oddballs from Philadelphia, where much of the film is situated.