Directed by: Bart Layton.
Featuring: Frédéric Bourdin (Himself), Adam O'Brian (Frédéric Bourdin), Carey Gibson (Herself), Anna Ruben (Carey Gibson), Beverly Dollarhide (Herself), Cathy Dresbach (Nancy Fisher), Charlie Parker (Himself), Alan Teichman (Charlie Parker), Nancy Fisher (Herself), Ivan Villanueva (Social Worker), Bryan Gibson (Himself), Maria Jesus Hoyos (Judge), Codey Gibson (Himself), Anton Marti (Male Police Officer), Amparo Fontanet (Female Police Officer), Bruce Perry (Himself), Ken Appledorn (U.S. Embassy Official), Phillip French (Himself).
Spoiler Warning: I don’t think that this review contains any true spoilers – most of what it discusses is revealed fairly early in the film. However, if you know nothing of the story, and want to see the film yourself, you may be better off waiting until after you’ve seen the film to read this review. What I will say in this space is that it is a very good documentary. You’ve been warned.
The Imposter is a fascinating documentary that ultimately raises just as many questions as it answers. In 1994, Nicholas Barclay, then 13, disappeared from his Texas home and was never found. In 1997, his family gets a phone call from police in Spain – they have someone there who claims to be Nicholas. As soon as they get some paper work done, they can come and get him – which is exactly what his big sister does. Nicholas has a fantastic story to tell about being kidnapped and forced into the sex trade for years, before finally escaping his captors. But there are problems with his story. How did his captors manage to smuggle a 13 year old boy out of America in the first place? Why is his hair a different color? Why are his eyes a different color? Why does he speak with what appears to be a French accent? Why does he seem to have little to no memory about his life in Texas? And why does he appear to be older than 16-17 year old boy he is supposed to be?
The answer of course, as the title implies, is that this is not Nicholas at all. The person claiming to be Nicholas is really Frederic Bourdin, who is in his early 20s and is in fact from France. He is wanted by Interpol, and when some helpful tourists come across him in Spain, he has to think quickly before he gets arrested. Bourdin is interviewed in the film, and explains exactly how he came to claim to be Nicholas Barclay. He never expected things to go as far as they do, but he rode the wave anyway. Because when Nicholas’ sister shows up, she believes that he really is Nicholas – and when she brings him home to Texas, the rest of the family believes it as well. His amazing story of survival even makes the news. The problem is that the FBI wants to speak to him. They need to know everything “Nicholas” can tell them about the sex trafficking ring that abducted him. But Nicholas isn’t really co-operating – and neither is his family. It will only be a matter of time before the truth comes out.
The Imposter is one of those stories that if it wasn’t true, you would never believe it. Imagine a Hollywood screenwriter trying to make this story up, and it just doesn’t seem at all plausible. But this is a true story – and a strange one. And even by the end of the film, when Bourdin has had his say, and Nicholas Barclay’s family have all had their say, we still don’t know the whole story.
Why, for instance, did the Barclay’s believe this person, who was clearly not Nicholas, was their long lost son/brother? Even after the police and FBI tell them there is no way he could possibly be Nicholas, they continue to insist that he is for quite some time? Was it simply that they were so desperate, so wanted to believe that this was Nicholas, that they convinced themselves of the impossible? Or is it something more sinister. After his ruse was discovered, and Bourdin was arrested, he claimed that the family confessed to him that they had murdered Nicholas and disposed of the body. Therefore, they had to pretend that the real Nicholas was out there somewhere, or else admit their own guilt. But how can we possibly believe anything Bourdin has to say? He is a compulsive liar – Nicholas was not the first, nor was he the last, person Bourdin tried to pass himself off as. And yet, there does seem to be something fishy going on here – something beyond Bourdin.
The Imposter was directed by Bart Layton and is an interesting looking documentary throughout its running time. Purists will most likely be upset that Layton inserts “re-enactments” and other staged scenes, without anything identifying them as such, but smart audience members will be able to tell – and the scenes give the film something to show other than the standard boilerplate documentary format – talking heads and archival footage. And it’s a film that is endlessly fascinating. Yes, it is more manipulative than most documentaries, and at times Layton goes a little overboard with the stylistic trickery, but overall The Imposter is a documentary that I cannot get out of my head.