Cryptic, crazy and all true, Toynbee tile film is Philly director’s first

Last year saw the release of “Exit Through the Gift Shop,” about underground London street artist Banksy–a documentary with suspicious authenticity. Perhaps not surprisingly, Philadelphia now offers a film about street art that is weirder, crazier, and all true.

“Resurrect Dead: The Mystery of the Toynbee Tiles” won a prize at Sundance last year. The film is the first by West Philadelphian Jon Foy, who funded the production himself by cleaning houses for a living.

After premiering at the IFC Center in New York for a week, it will have its first local run beginning Thursday at International House in University City.

The Toynbee Tiles are tiles cut with odd messages involving historian Arnold Toynbee, Stanley Kubrick’s “2001: A Space Odyssey,” and resurrecting the dead on the planet Jupiter. The tiles have been embedded into street asphalt in cities up and down the East Coast, as far west as Cleveland, even in South America.

“The tiles are being cut out with a blade, a hand is holding the blade,” said Justin Duerr in the film. “It’s totally real, it’s physical, it’s tangible. Somewhere there’s a human being that’s behind all of this.”

Duerr had been obsessively pursuing the Toynbee tiler for years before filmmaker Jon Foy joined the investigation in 2007. The film is structured like a noir mystery, with lists of suspects, dead-end leads, and lots of shadows and harsh lighting.

After about 80 minutes of false-starts and circumstantial evidence, the probable tiler is identified. But the elusive, and likely deranged, folk artist is never seen.

“I feel like Justin reaching out to this person because he felt such a connection to this person–that was the story for me,” said Foy. “That’s the emotional spine of the film.”

At the International House screenings, Foy will be joined by Duerr and other Toynbee Tiler chasers. There is a chance the reclusive tiler himself will be there, but no one will know who he is.

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