Director: Bart Layton
Cinematographers: Lynda Hall & Erik Wilson
Composer: Anne Nikitin
[Note: there is no way to discuss this documentary without mentioning spoilers, so consider yourself warned.]
I found out about this documentary while watching one of my favorite YouTube channels called Every Frame A Painting. This excellent web series discusses and analyzes different types of cinematic shots and framing devices, each episode focusing on one stylistic choice (like tracking shots) through one particular movie or director’s oeuvre. The episode on the documentary The Imposter intrigued me quite a bit, and since it is offered streaming on Netflix, I decided to give it a go.
The film is extremely perplexing for a variety of reasons, and even though I watched it over a week ago, I am still not sure how I feel about my viewing experience. The documentary tells the tale of Frédéric Bourdin, a con man who tricks a grieving family and the American government into thinking that he is a young man who had gone missing a few years earlier.
The first jarring thing about this documentary is that it utilizes dramatic reenactments, a device that I have never particularly loved because it screams cheap and TV special, as opposed to a more creative cinematic approach to real life stories. I guess the fact that the movie uses mostly interviews with very little archive footage forced the filmmaker’s hand, but it still doesn’t completely work, and it does cheapen the film considerably. The story we are told, all from Bourdin’s perspective and through his own narration, is that in 1997 the man called the police from a payphone in Spain alleging that he was a young malnourished teenager who had previously been kidnapped and had escaped his captors. When taken to the police station he was questioned and eventually stated that he was an American teenager. For some unexplained reason the man was left alone in the police station and he took advantage of his situation and began to look into missing person reports until he found someone he thought he could effectively impersonate: a young boy who had gone missing three years earlier in Texas.
The missing boy was Nicholas Barclay, who had been missing since 1994 at the age of thirteen. The entire Barclay family is interviewed in this documentary as well, a family consisting of Nicholas’ mother, sister, and brother in law. Other people interviewed for the film are officers, government workers, and ambassadors.
Once Bourdin chooses this particular identity is when things begin to not make sense. For the first two thirds of the documentary the story is told very linearly and we are supposed to be convinced by Bourdin’s charm and bullshitting ways that everything he says actually happened as recounted. And it mostly did. Which is what makes watching this film extremely frustrating, confusing, and utterly unbelievable. From the story Bourdin tells that he was kidnapped by the US, European, and Mexican military and sold into child slavery, prostitution, and labor, to the fact that the American teenager develops a thick and ungrammatical French accent over solely three years of captivity, to the fact that Nicholas’ blue eyes and blonde hair turn into Boudin’s brown hair and eyes and olive skin, let alone the fact that Bourdin is in actuality several years older than the presumed 17 he attests to being, how does any of it make the least amount of sense?
Even when the evidence that Bourdin is not the missing Nicholas becomes incontestable, the family seemingly continues to behave as though this is the long lost teenager whose disappearance caused the family to unravel in unimaginable grief. Sure, grief and a desperate need to believe that a child is still alive can have a lot of influence and can cause someone to believe the impossible, but at some point reality should set in. Why doesn’t it? Well, the documentaries, aided once again by Bourdin, seems to believe and wants to convince the viewers that the Barclay family is responsible for the murder of Nicholas, and that they would have gotten away with it had it not been for Bourdin randomly choosing to impersonate Nicholas. The evidence provided is flimsy at best, but this doesn’t stop Layton and a local Texan investigator from accusing the Barclays, especially the mother and the deceased brother, of having killed Nicholas. The film ends with said investigator digging in the Barclay’s yard, convinced he will find Nicholas’ remains. The fact that a documentary ends in such a misleading way was aggravating and insulting, because there were no remains found in that yard or anywhere else, but ending the film with these scenes causes the viewer to confirm the presumed guilt of the family of the still missing teenager. The only evidence that is really given is Bourdin’s testimony, the words of a man who has been lying his whole life and lying throughout the film.
The film, then, is manipulative and actually quite vapid and empty. Towards the end it turns out that Bourdin had impersonated many more people prior to this particular story, and had done so throughout Europe, some of the children he attested to being were even imaginary, and was a wanted man by Interpol and several nations’ agencies and police forces. We also discover that he has since become a husband and father himself. I found that I was much more interested in this man’s story than in that of the Barclay family, a simple, poor, and extremely uneducated family, which seemed to be preyed upon repeatedly throughout the film, an easy target of judgment, ridicule, and a source of derision. I disliked the mudslinging that took place and found that as a documentarian Bart Layton had not done his job and had betrayed the cause. Layton has not directed a film since The Imposter, and based on what I’ve seen, I hope it stays that way.