Much has been written already about how brilliant a documentary “The Imposter” is, so going into this I was expecting some big things from it, however right from the start this film just rubbed me the wrong way.
The true story of “The Imposter” is an amazing one. Back in 1993, Nicholas Barclay, disappeared from his home without a trace. After intensive searching for the thirteen year old failed to provide any evidence to the boy’s whereabouts, the family started to realize that if he was ever to be found, he would most likely be deceased. Three years later, Nicholas’s mother receives a phone call from Spain of all places, explaining to the woman that her son has been found there. He is dazed and appears traumatized but he is very much alive. Nicholas’s sister immediately boards the next plane to Spain to bring her brother home. The family is ecstatic by Nicholas’s return, something they never thought would happen, but it isn’t long before they notice that something isn’t right. They understand that the boy has been through a lot, but he has changed so much is it really Nicholas. Obviously from the title of the film it turns out that the family has brought into their house an imposter, a French immigrant who among many differences from Nicholas, has a completely different eye colour than the boy. The imposter, whose real name is Frederic Bourdin, starts to wonder why a family would readily accept an obvious stranger in their home in the guise of their deceased son unless they have something to hide. It is then that he starts to believe that the family themselves or at least members of it, had something to do with Nicholas’s disappearance.
From the above you can see that the actual story is a very intriguing if unbelievable one. This is a “truth is stranger than fiction” film but the problem with the documentary is the way that the story is presented. Director Bart Layton puts the film together in such a way that you are actually not sure whether or not this is real. It actually has the feeling of a mockumentary and the use of dramatized re-enactments do not help. It was like Layton wanted to make a film based on the real events instead of documenting what actually happened. The entire film has a feeling of façade and even contempt for its audience as I am sure the whole point of the presentation is to make us question what is real or not. With the title of the film being “The Imposter” I was so sure it was ironically titled and that what I was watching was a fabricated story pretending to be true. The feeling of smugness and being too clever for its own good is what I took away from the film, but when I got home and realized that the story was actually true, it made me angry that Bart Layton decided to trivialize the disappearance of a little boy for entertainment purposes.
Layton had access to a number of interviewee subjects from Nicholas’s sister and mother, a private investigator, an FBI agent on the case and Frederic Bourdin himself. The way the interview sections have been put together and edited it is almost as if Layton was mocking the Barclay family because they come across as idiots. Even worse was the FBI agent involved and her inept abilities to do her job was the main reason I thought this film wasn’t real. The other odd decision Layton makes is the fact that he almost makes Bourdin the “hero” of the film as he is treated with much more respect than any of the family members. It is like he is impressed by the fact that he was able to get away with such a strange crime. As you would expect him to be, Bourdin is a charismatic guy, but Layton goes too far by almost idolizing this sick man who fed off the despair of a family and who ultimately accused them of murdering their child themselves. The problem with this is Bourdin is a known serial liar so how can we take what he says as fact. I would go so far as to say that Layton has exploited the disappearance of this boy and the pain of his family, in an attempt to make his film more “entertaining”.
The sheer absurdity of the true facts would have made this documentary compelling enough if told in the traditional manner, but the contempt for both the subject of the film and the audience shown here is disgusting and I feel sorry for the family members who committed to this project in good faith only to end up being ridiculed and mocked. Isn’t the loss of their child painful enough without it being trivialized by an uncaring filmmaker. My score for the film is due to the true facts involved not for the documentary which made me very angry.