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The Past is a Foreign Country2009

  • 3.9
In April 1989, a body floats down the Colorado River with a bullet wound in the back of its head. That body is John H. Jenkins, rare book and historical document dealer. He had been at the epicenter of one of the largest document-forgery scandals in Texas history and his death (legally ruled suicide) is the start of a journey deep upriver into that exotic kingdom known as the past. THE PAST IS A FOREIGN COUNTRY is an essay about forged historical documents, murder and scenic time travel (not necessarily in that order).

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"...an intriguing mystery that plays with history. A documentary that takes a case and explores it through strange characters and dynamic structure." - David Gordon Green


5 members like this review

On the surface this film is about a suicide (or murder) of a dealer in historical documents, especially in relation to Texas, but in a broader sense, it is about history and what we do with it. I liked the way it showed how we always change history to fit our current views. I especially recommend this to any student of history. It asks the question - do we know more about the past the further we are away from it chronologically? With distance we can see more perspective and gather more facts, but with distance we inevitably distort everything we see with our own beliefs - individually and culturally.

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top reviewer

Member Reviews (15)

95549.small
top reviewer

On the surface this film is about a suicide (or murder) of a dealer in historical documents, especially in relation to Texas, but in a broader sense, it is about history and what we do with it. I liked the way it showed how we always change history to fit our current views. I especially recommend this to any student of history. It asks the question - do we know more about the past the further we are away from it chronologically? With distance we can see more perspective and gather more facts, but with distance we inevitably distort everything we see with our own beliefs - individually and culturally.

5 members like this review
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top reviewer

This is not a very well conceived documentary, in my opinion. I still can't see any unifying theme here at all. It's all over the map. From a suicide/possible murder to forging rare documents from Texas history, to an old Hollywood movie set in Texas, to musings about the accuracy of history, what the hell was this filmmaker really trying to say? If it was primarily about forged historical documents related to Texas, then it didn't do a good job there, since it only focused on one example, forgeries of the Declaration Of Independence of Texas. That this 2009 film focused on taped interviews of four people that were made in 1999, shows how outdated the information contained in them was at the time that this film was produced. Just really don't understand what this filmmaker had in mind, if anything, when he created this film.

2 members like this review
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top reviewer

As an archivist and historian, I have no idea what the philosophical underpinnings of this film are.

2 members like this review

What a great film! beautifully done with great information featuring Larry McMurtry, Dorman David, Johnny Jenkins and others about Texas documents and rare book dealing .

2 members like this review
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top reviewer

The doubly exotic world of Texana and its colorful collectors is enticing, and the new footage is prettily shot. But not only are the facts of the case presented in a haphazard and difficult-to-follow way, the narration is sometimes snotty and sometimes pretentious, leaving the viewer in doubt as to whether there is any real value here.

1 member likes this review
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top reviewer

Potentially fascinating mystery with only-in-Texas characters and subtext. Arch and pretentious narration mars this documentary experience for the viewer.

1 member likes this review

I found this strangely disturbing, yet compelling. It does not deliver what was expected based on the opening, but it's made all the richer by deviating from the murder mystery set-up, and veering instead into a bigger-picture look at how history is, in some ways, unknowable--despite our desire to preserve it.

1 member likes this review

As a bookseller I hoped for more insight into the life and shady dealings of John Jenkins and the world of antiquarian forgeries. This film has four "talking heads" interviews with other people from the rare book world, all texans. Woven throughout is a musing-on-the-nature-of history-itself voice. From reading the comments of others I take it the musings worked for them. Since I live and work in the business of historical books and documents, I took this part of the movie for granted. And a bit overdone. Overall: I got certain info by watching this movie that I would not get elsewhere, so I'm satisfied.

1 member likes this review

Excellent work! Loved watching it.

1 member likes this review

I have been moved beyond words.

1 member likes this review

Wow - fantastic. Watch This Film. This is a film with the structural rigor of James Benning coupled with the exploratory nature of a Chris Marker video essay. It is not about an unsolved death, it is about the very nature of the unknown itself and uses forged documents as a way to meditate on forgotten and future times, spaces and relationships. If I want something spoon-fed to me, I'll take steak and potatoes, and if I want a true crime story, I'll watch TV. This movie, on the other hand, delivers in the best possible way.

1 member likes this review
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top reviewer

The voice of the narrator is more seductive than the material.

I was disappointed in this documentary. I thought it was going to be about John H Jenkins III. It's prologue talked about him being found shot in the back of the head but the documentary doesn't discuss his autobiography book, his work with the FBI and numerous other interesting experiences he was involved during the mid 70's. It appears the persons interviewed in the documentary either were covering for Mr. Jenkins, didn't know him or pretended to know him. I've done extensive research on him only because when I reached out to Chas Allen of American Animals he had no idea who John H Jenkins III was. If such a character as Chas Allen were true and his alleged true story of American Animals were true and it involved similar events such as what John H Jenkins wrote about in his autobiography 35 years early then I guess "The Past is a Foreign Country" and Bart Layton and Orchard Films appear to have made up a story about an event that occurred 35 years earlier.

Great movie! Must see again!

Interesting...human beings are strange indeed.