Director: Bart Layton
Writer: Bart Layton
Cast: Frederic Bourdin
“I’ve spent my whole life trying not to think about things.”
The true life story behind documentary the Imposter is almost impossible to believe, which is handy for a film which seeks to expose the fragility of truth.
Years after the disappearance of their teenage son Nicholas Barclay, a remote Texas family are given the shock of their lives when they receive a phone call from Spain with a man claiming to have the boy in custody. Only the sister is able to make the flight over to Europe (or as the family put it “the whole other side of the country.”) and despite there immediately being widely shared suspicions that this may not actually be Nicholas, the boy is eventually declared as Nicholas and is sent back to America to be reunited with his folks. As the title suggests, Nicholas of course turns out to be an imposter – the unlikely but highly skilled conman Frédéric Bourdin. Though much of the film explores Frederic’s past and his reasons for impersonating the boy, the real story is in how he managed to convince the family, along with the authorities, of his seemingly obviously performance.
As modern documentary’s generally are, the Imposter is structured as if it were a piece of fiction rather than… err… a document of events. It carefully builds its material towards revelations and twists. It unfolds with dramatic flair, creating what feels like real time tension, withholding certain bits of information until they can turn the narrative on its head. Characters are established early on and developed through the multiple talking heads, only for withheld back stories to give important new perspectives on each persons motivations.
This style can often feel frustratingly manipulative, threatening to cloud your own opinions for the sake of giving better pacing to a story which might otherwise not be exciting from beginning to end. But here it is all done with good reason. As director Bart Layton has explained; the unbelievable nature of the real life story presented a real problem that, if given all the facts at once, the audience would likely reject it as a hoax. People just do not behave normally and there are too many “what the fuck” moments to be plausible. Presented as a cheap movie thriller, audiences would laugh in derision at the plot holes and huge leaps in disbelief. Without sharing in the more narrow perspectives of the individuals involved they would not be able to appreciate how anybody could be suckered in by a seemingly obvious attempt at deception.
It turns out to be an astute decision and, though the first half of the film will still have you shaking your head in frustration and disbelief, by the end there is a clear and impressive sense of purpose to everything.
This is made possible when a whole new element to the story is introduced, temporarily adding some sense and reasoning to everything that has happened. Suddenly obscure bits of information, which first seemed ridiculous, start to make sense, such as the family member who during the reunion with Nicholas refused to speak to the miraculously returned boy except to say “good luck son”. It is a very powerful reveal which needs to be reached before everything starts to click.
Only after this brief moment of certainty does Layton draw the revelations back on themselves and resolve the entire film into an ambiguous examination of truth and lies. Unlike other documentaries the Imposter has little archive footage to draw upon, instead relying on interviews and narration as actors silently reconstruct key points in the story. The dramatised recreations fade in and out to Bourdin’s narration, reminding us that most of what we are hearing is entirely an account told by one of the people involved. We the viewers are literally trusting in the words coming out of the mouths of people who accused of being pathological liars.
Debates over whether documentaries have a responsibility to uncover the facts or whether they should be allowed to use editing and and clever narrative tricks to explore more artistic concepts will no doubt ensue but this is another facet of what makes this such an intriguing film. Yet for all its ambiguity the Imposter still heavily suggests what it believes to be the truth, particularly with the loaded final scene.
Did anything we just heard have a foundation in reality? Can any of the people giving interviews be trusted? It is something you will have to decide for yourself…