Original release: August 24th, 2012
Running time: 99 minutes
Director: Bart Layton
Writers: Wolfgang Becker, Bernd Lichtenberg
Cast: Frederic Bourdin, Carey Gibson, Adam O’Brian
I’ve always loved acting. Not so much atop a stage, you understand, but in front of small groups. I enjoyed raising fits of giggles from the rest of the class with comedic creations during drama lessons at school and in crafting believable and fully realised characters during a drama A-Level. Long before both of these things, I traditionally put on a play for the family at Christmas with my younger sisters in the supporting roles whilst I strutted the boards, or at least the tiled floor, as variations on Sherlock Holmes, Sir Francis Drake and Special Agent Fox Mulder.
More so than playing a character in a scripted performance though, I loved becoming one. It’s not a big audience I enjoyed so much as just being a different person. As such, I spent many an hour creating the back story of an old Pembrokeshire farmer that I’d inhabit to make my grandmother laugh and when I frequent fancy dress parties, it’s always fully in character. I recall that, whilst at University, my friends and I would often take on new personas during a night out just for the fun of it; Australian, American, Scouser, Geordie… you name it, we probably played it. Or at least attempted to.
So, I was naturally intrigued when I heard of a documentary, The Imposter, about a 23-year-old Frenchman who convinced everyone, including the grief-stricken family, that he was a missing 15 year-old from Texas. Obviously this was taking the fun of inhabiting a role to an entirely new fraud/identity theft kind of level and, in taking advantage of a family, to a considerably darker place. Still, it was something utterly intriguing for the actor in me; the person who could imagine the thrill of convincing an audience that they’re someone else entirely. What I was perhaps not expecting was one of the most compelling documentaries I’d ever seen.
The setup is that a young American boy, Nicholas Barclay, all blonde hair and blue eyes, aged thirteen, went missing from San Antonio, Texas, in July of 1994. Three years later, a teenage boy was found cowering in a telephone box in Spain and the Barclays were beside themselves with joy that Nicholas had been found. Except that rather than the blonde haired, blue-eyed teen they’d lost, this was a much older looking young man with dark hair and eyes, who couldn’t speak English without a French accent. And the Barclays welcomed him home with open arms. Weird.
Though the subject matter is absorbing all by itself, the film sees the story told from the mouth of the man himself, Frédéric Bourdin. This is not your average, dispassionate attempt at objectively conveying a set of events; what director Bart Layton chose to do was embrace the themes of this tale of deceit, portraying the events (using actors) as they are in the testimonies of those involved, including the imposter himself.
This means that the film, rather than being about the act and facts of deceit, is instead about its very nature. Bourdin, it becomes clear, is a serial imposter and a pathological liar but the more we watch him and hear him spin his yarn, the more we’re taken in by it. Even being dispassionate and removed of the situation, his words are beguiling and Layton encourages this very response using his “recreations” to convey the Frenchman’s take on events. The film also deals with the very real issue of self-deceit which would seem to explain the ease with which this utterly incongruous man could work his way into a vulnerable family. Simply put, they wanted to have their son and brother back and when he seemed to have appeared, they believed and saw what their hearts wanted them to.
Bourdon was eventually exposed – despite having previously been questioned by the US authorities – by a tenacious private detective, called Charlie Parker, who compared photos of Nicholas Barclay’s ears to those of Bourdin to prove that they were not one and the same. This revelation, does not simply conclude the story but instead launches into a totally different and dark direction when we’re asked to consider, then, what did happen to Nicholas as Bourdin himself states his fears.
As the film reaches its climax we come to realise that Layton has manipulated us and has allowed us to scoff at the uneducated Barclay family, before suspecting them; we gawp in astonishment that they could ever have fallen for Bourdin’s lies, only to then find ourselves drawn in by his account. Although the film finishes with a stark reminder of his twisted psyche and inability to stop lying to people, even from jail, I for one am still haunted by his accusations. In some ways, you could argue that this is not a documentary at all but a recreation from accounts and a lesson in storytelling from the family and the master himself. One question it also raises though, is how much an actor’s performance is convincing on its own merits, and how much is us wanting to believe.
Ben has had a keen love of moving images since his childhood but after leaving school he fell truly in love with films. His passion manifests itself in his consumption of movies (watching films from all around the globe and from any period of the medium’s history with equal gusto), the enjoyment he derives from reading, talking and writing about cinema and being behind the camera himself having completed his first co-directed short film in mid-2011.
His favourite films include things as diverse as The Third Man, In The Mood For Love, Badlands, 3 Iron, Casablanca, Ran and Grizzly Man to name but a few.