The Imposter (documentary 2012) Bart Layton
Many people avoid documentaries for several reasons: they generally consider them boring, slow-moving, poorly made, they don’t feature real actors… The list of excuses is endless (and not always unmerited). I’d like to challenge those folks who avoid documentaries to watch Bart Layton’s The Imposter, a film that singlehandedly could change the way you feel about documentaries. Seriously.
13-year-old Nicholas Barclay leaves his house in San Antonio, Texas to play basketball with some friends on a summer day in 1994. He doesn’t return that evening, but Nicholas is something of a free spirit, often bending and breaking the rules. His family’s used to it. But he doesn’t come home the next day or the next or the next.
Three and a half years later the Barclays receive a phone call. Nicholas has been found alive in small village in Spain.
After much questioning, paperwork and processing, Nicholas is flown back to Texas. Yet this is a very different Nicholas. Yes, he’s three and a half years older and still shows many of his distinguishing marks and features, but his eye color has changed and he has a strange accent. He also claims he’s been physically, psychologically and sexually abused, but won’t say much about it, or really, anything.
Of course we know that this is not Nicholas, but an imposter (or impostor; both spellings are acceptable) named Frédéric Bourdin, who appears on camera throughout much of the documentary, freely discussing how he impersonated Nicholas and fooled the authorities and his family.
Now… after a certain amount of time you’re going to think to yourself (or out loud, as my wife and I did), “Wait a minute. This is crazy. There’s no way this guy could’ve fooled all those people. Why didn’t the family do this? Why didn’t the authorities do that?” When those questions arise, do not stop watching. You’ll think you’ve got it figured out and there’s no need to watch further, but you must see The Imposter through to the end. (Although I don’t think you’ll really need any arm-twisting to keep watching.)
Director Bart Layton comes dangerously close to making us think that not only are we watching a faker, but also that elements of the film are faked. Layton employs a technique that’s used frequently in television, but not as much in documentaries, that of having actors reenact past events. We’re used to watching documentary films that show actual footage and interviews with the actual people involved. (We do get much of that, especially the latter.) So what we have here are several scenes recreated by actors simulating past events, a technique that frequently calls into question the validity of the presentation, yet in this case is somewhat unavoidable.
Layton also does a bit of manipulation, not in his material, per se, but in how he conveys it. For instance (without giving too much away), at one point a private investigator suspects something is up with Nicholas and pursues a theory. That line of investigation is, I believe, what really happened, but Layton edits that portion of the film to heighten the tension to a nearly unbearable degree, making it as nail-biting as any big-budget thriller. Of course you could say that all documentaries contain some amount of manipulation (choice of camera shots, editing, etc.), but here you never feel that the truth has been manipulated, only the sequence and presentation of it.
The Imposter fascinates for many reasons. We’re mesmerized by Bourdin’s ability to con, yet we quickly suspect that he may not be the only person in the film trying to fake something. The con aspect of this movie isn’t the only element that makes it of interest to noir fans. Here’s a real-life neo-noir story that may not have the smoky bar scenes and back alleys of noir, but the foundations of fallen humanity and desperation are there nonetheless. The film also forces us to consider our own concepts of right and wrong, a person’s moral responsibilities, and the fact that everyone has secrets.
My wife and I watched The Imposter on Friday night. It’s now Monday morning and I’ve been thinking about the film off and on ever since. I think if you watch it, maybe you will too.