Glasgow Film Theatre, 10.09.12

Documentary film has a long history of controversy when it comes to film portraying something as fact, when it is in reality false, in order to serve the film-makers story, or version of events, that they wish to present. The film widely regarded as the first feature documentary Robert J. Flaherty’s Nanook of the North (1922) established this constant tension within cinematic fact by becoming a massive hit, and subsequently exposed as a largely made up version of Eskimo life, with specially shot and composed scenes presented as matter of fact everyday life.  That trend continues through to the modern-day, where many of the successful documentaries are made by film-makers wishing to present their views, rather than present facts, such as the politically polemic documentaries of Micheal Moore (Bowling For Columbine, Farenheit 9/11). Others, like the excellent Man On Wire (produced by the same people behind The Imposter) are more traditional in a retelling of a past event, but still rely heavily on participants recollections of what occurred, statements of opinion rather than document.  The simplest fact is that as soon as any edit is made to a piece of material, the film-maker has altered the original meaning of that material.  All of which feeds into the debate surrounding Bart Layton’s extraordinary ‘documentary’ The Imposter neatly, as here we are given an incredible real life story, told by the participants, none of whom can be a regarded as a reliable witness, all of whom have something to hide, and led by the account of a convicted fraudster.

The story centres around the disappearance of 13-year old Nicholas Barclay from his home town in San Antonio,Texas in 1994. 3 years later, in a Spanish Children’s home, Frederic Bourdin, a 23-year-old French-Algerian with a troubled childhood, needing to provide the Spanish authorities with an identity, claims to be Nicholas. Despite the obvious differences in age,  accent and appearance (blue-eyed, fair, blonde-haired Nicholas versus brown-eyed, dark-skinned and dark-haired Frederic),  the authorities are taken in by Frederic’s tale of kidnapping, abuse and trauma. Nicholas’s sister flies to Madrid and believes Frederic to be her lost brother. Incredibly, Frederic is given a US passport and is flown home to be ‘reunited’ with his family, including his mother, who are all similarly, bizarrely, drawn into Frederic’s deception, along with the FBI. As each participant presents their version of events via interviews, and Layton uses dramatic reconstructions to visually demonstrate their narratives, the plot becomes more convoluted and incredible. Suspicions grow as Private Investigator Charlie Parker senses something is awry, and a FBI child psychologist  immediately refutes any suggestion that Frederic could be Nicholas Barclay, but the family, bizarrely, carry on allowing Frederic to remain in their house, publicly claiming he is Nicholas.  Once Frederic is eventually exposed as a fraud, new questions are raised as to what actually happened to Nicholas, and why would a family let a complete stranger into their home? Are there darker secrets to the tale? Frederic believes Nicholas’s half-brother Jason, a drug addict now dead, murdered Nicholas, and the family conspired to use him as a cover up. But as Frederic is exposed as a convicted fraudster on the Interpol most wanted list, can you believe anything he claims?

The beauty of Bart Layton’s documentary lies in the very fact that the truth is ultimately unobtainable, and his witnesses unreliable. It allows him to present key events from different perspectives and let the conflicting testimony argue against one another. Skillfully edited, Layton juxtaposes testimony to convey humour at the ridiculousness of the Barclay family’s  actions, fear and tension at the situation that Frederic lands himself in, drama as the threat of discovery and imprisonment hangs over Frederic, pathos as the grieving family mourn their lost son while having to fend off claims of wrongdoing, and betrayal as  the cheeky but loveable rogue Frederic is exposed as a compulsive con man preying on the vulnerable families of missing children around the world.

Accommodating so many contradictory viewpoints, shifting the viewers sympathies back and forth between several characters and maintaining the drive and tension of a fictional thriller are a testament to Layton’s crafting of his tale. Documentary purists may revile at the use of reconstruction, and the visual and audio trickery that is used to present the story.  The participation of Bourdin is in itself controversial as a known liar gets to present his side of the story as evidence – can we really believe anything of what he says? – but the film would be missing half of its’ incredible story without him. Indeed, so engaging is Bourdin that it is easy to be sucked into his world of deceit and lies, while the Barclay family, much more introverted, terse, suspicious and vulnerable constantly hint at hidden truths. 

As the end credits role and the denouement of the unconcluded tale is told, Bourdin is shown in home video footage impersonating another tragic figure with a damaged childhood – doing a  Michael Jackson dance routine while seemingly in some kind of psychiatric ward. Extrovert, performing, mimicking and mirroring, and at the same time funny and deeply disturbing, this artful portrayal sums up The Imposter itself. A film not to be taken as fact but to be questioned, enjoyed and dazzled by in equal measure. Astonishing in every sense.

Film Rating: 5 out of 5.

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