Thursday, September 6, 2012

The Imposter

Continuing my string of engrossing documentaries, I saw The Imposter at the Landmark Lumiere in August.

The Imposter; directed by Bart Layton; documentary; English & Spanish with subtitles; (2012) - Official Website

Going into the film, I thought it was fiction and it was a few minutes before I realized it was not a fauxumentary.  The story was improbable enough to be fiction but was based on a true story.

Nicholas Barclay, a 13 year old boy from San Antonio, disappeared in 1994.  Three years later, he re-appeared in Spain.  He told incredible tales of being kidnapped and sexually abused by military personnel.  More incredibly, he spoke English with a French accent and had different colored eyes.  He claimed he was not allowed to speak English while in captivity and developed his accent because he was not used to speaking English.  The military personnel tortured him by injecting chemicals into his eye which changed his eye color.  If it seems to outlandish to be true, it is because it was lie.  Frédéric Bourdin, a French Algerian con artist who specialized in impersonating teenagers, hit the jackpot when he ran across the case of Barclay.  Bourdin convinced the Spanish police, the US State Department, the FBI and Barclay's family that he was Nicholas Barclay.

According to the film, a suspicious private investigator unraveled the case.  Language experts opined that an extended period of not speaking one's native language would not result in speaking it with a foreign accent.  DNA tests proved Bourdin was not Barclay and his fingerprints identified him as being wanted by Interpol for a litany of crimes involving fraud and impersonations.  Bourdin's motivation was a mix of self-preservation, mental diseases and sociopathy.  Bourdin's cooperation with the filmmakers was surprisingly candid at times.

The most fascinating part of the story is why the family accepted Bourdin as Nicholas Barclay given the evidence of his impersonation.  The film posits that Barclay's step-brother killed him and that his mother and sister were aware of or suspected the crime.  Their acceptance of Bourdin as Nicholas is to cover their crime and/or assuage their guilt.  Although a search for the body is conducted, the film ends without it turning up.

The story is so incredulous that it felt like a thriller.  At many points throughout the film, I thought the twists and turns became too much to believe.  I kept wondering if I was watching a true story or was I being Blair Witched?  The FBI looked amateurish and the Barclays looked like PWT.  Bourdin, a professional liar, minimized his culpability and deflected his guilt with his accusations of Barclay's murder.  The circumstantial evidence supports the murder theory but when dealing with a con man like Bourdin, it pays to be skeptical.

At times, The Imposter veered towards Behind the Music territory. There were a several reenactments which I thought generally detracted from the film.  The film had a tabloid feel which was probably deliberate due to the subject matter.  Not in the mood to quibble, I accepted and enjoyed The Imposter on its terms.

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