In an election year already full of wild stories, there are few more compelling or that more accurately depict what’s at stake in the current campaign than the one entitled “The Audacity of Louis Ortiz,” a feature-length documentary that filmmaker Ryan Murdock recently adapted for an episode of "This American Life." And it doesn’t actually concern anyone running for office.
Yet that didn’t stop documentarian Murdock from covering Ortiz as if he were an actual candidate, following around the former phone technician from the Bronx whose uncanny resemblance to President Obama lifted him from unemployment four years ago. But like Ortiz, who is at a crossroads since his work as an impersonator may dry up after November, Murdock finds himself at a similar juncture, appealing to potential investors on Kickstarter before a March 14th deadline, to help him finish the film.
As with documenting anything remotely political, it hasn’t been cheap to trail Ortiz, who has been shuttled around the world in recent years, hired in places as far-flung as Japan and South Korea for his broad smile and big ears. However, when the filmmaker, who previously produced the Oliver Sacks documentary “Musical Minds” for the PBS series “NOVA” and has worked with Storycorps in recent years, initially met Ortiz through a friend in May 2011, it didn’t take him long to realize there was much more beneath the surface.
“Louis' story is a quintessential American one – make the most of the opportunities that life hands you,” said Murdock. “But it’s also a story that’s completely unique. Louis has this very strange window on what our country has been through.”
In fact, Murdock says the first thing Ortiz told him when they first got in touch was “I’m so glad you called. I’ve been living in the ‘Twilight Zone’ for the last three years.” While most Americans were disillusioned with a poor economy and dim prospects, Ortiz had the surreal experience of being approached by them as if he really was the commander-in-chief when in reality he was not too far removed from their struggles.
“It's ironic that he can make his living by appearing as the most successful person in the world when in truth he's the epitome of the 99 percent,” said Murdock. “He wants what everybody else wants – to send his daughter to college, pay off his debts, take his girlfriend out to dinner once in a while.”
Interestingly enough, it’s been the one problem that Ortiz has shared with the president that has given “The Audacity of Louis Ortiz” its natural story arc. Although Ortiz became ubiquitous in the months following the 2008 election, appearing on HBO’s “Flight of the Conchords” and making personal appearances wherever he was asked, the dwindling popularity of President Obama – and in Ortiz’s case, the media attention that came with it – has meant that the impersonator has started looking more and more like an average American, his physical appearance aside. Not only has this left Murdock alone to capture the interesting aftermath for Ortiz after the spotlight has waned, but to do so when Ortiz’s fortunes could very well change later this year.
Regardless of what happens, Murdock is on track to finish the film by the end of 2012, possibly before votes are even cast and no matter what the outcome of the election is, he knows he has a film that will speak to where Americans are and where they want to be.
“Louis is a great example of the kind of everyday American that politicians are always talking about – he lost his job, his health insurance and is struggling to make it,” said Murdock. “Ultimately, his story is about hope and it’s one I think may people can relate to, especially in this election year.”