The Imposter

THE IMPOSTER. Documentary Film. Directed by Bart Layton. Rated M (Coarse language and mature themes). 99 min.

This British film on limited release won “Best Documentary” at the 2012 British Independent Film Awards. It has the kind of plot that, if a fiction film used it, one would think it too far-fetched to be believable.

It tells story of Frederic Bourdin, a French con-man, who specialized in identity fraud. Bourdin impersonated Nicholas Barclay, a young boy from San Antonio, Texas, USA, who disappeared at the age of 13 and turned up in Linares, Spain. Bourdin was well practiced in impersonating destitute children in Europe to obtain their social services support.

In 1994, Nicholas disappeared from basketball practice in San Antonio, Texas. Three years and four months later, and facing internment, Bourdin contacted Nicholas’ sister in the US by telephoning her from Spain, pretending to be a Social Worker speaking on behalf of Nicholas, who he said was standing beside him. Bourdin went on to impersonate Nicholas, claiming he was sexually abused by US military personnel and transported from Texas to Spain. Bourdin was accepted by members of Nicholas’ family, who believed his story, even though he was older, had a foreign accent, and had different coloured eyes and hair. The impersonation was finally uncovered by a private investigator, Charles Parker, and an FBI agent, Nancy Fisher.

Right from the start, there is never any doubt in the movie about Bourdin’s guilt. The documentary is built around Bourdin’s personal testimony about his deceit. However, as the film progresses, it suggests that some members of the family knew more than they were willing to admit about Nicholas’ disappearance. Family members apparently knew he was not Nicholas, but didn’t say so. The thriller aspect of the documentary stems not so much from Bourdin, as from facts revealed about the Nicholas’ family, indicating that Bourdin, himself, might be an unwilling victim of deception. The film concludes by telling us that a homicide investigation into Nicholas’ disappearance was launched against the family, but was closed for lack of evidence. Bourdin is now out of jail, and Nicholas Barclay continues to be listed as a Missing Person.

The film is a tragic tale of insinuations and dark mystery, and one becomes suspicious of many of the players. Bourdin obviously conned the Barclay family, but one is not certain about the true meaning of the fraud that took place. As a result of the plot’s twists and turns, one never knows what actually happened, and this serves to heighten the dramatic tension of the movie.

The film thrills, and fascinates. Technically, it is very proficient. Sombre in colour-toning, and making clever use of close-ups and shadowy silhouettes, it skilfully combines face-to-face interviews with live re-enactments of events, and weaves together ingenuously the reports of Bourdin, the Barclays, the investigators, and others. It provides layers of information, asking for frequent re-interpretation of what has been seen and heard before. The result is that everything that happens in the movie requires further thought afterwards, and the documentary organises information to maximize the thriller components of a plot that develops planfully. This story is not just about a missing son, who was found. There is always something more.

The documentary fits the well-known dictum: truth is often stranger than fiction. It makes stolen identity less arresting than the questions the movie raises about why people believe in what they claim did happen, and the motivations for claiming falsely. In the final analysis, the film becomes an essay on the depth of deception, the ambiguity of fabricated fact, and the elusiveness of truth.

In creating its suspense, the film raises the issue of whether facts have been re-interpreted dramatically by the documentary to exploit the viewer’s perception. The film plays heavily with its interpretation of events, but whatever is the final truth, the documentary stays with you as a forceful telling of a disturbing and amazing story.

Peter W. Sheehan is associate of the Australian Catholic Office for Film and Broadcasting.

Madman entertainment.

Out March 7, 2013.

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