Every so often a documentary is released that emphatically proves the age old adage that truth really is stranger than fiction. The Imposter is one such film; an extraordinary tale of intrigue, deception and the nature of memory that will leave audiences opened mouthed with its twists and turns.
In 1993, thirteen year old Nicholas Barclay went missing after playing basketball with friends in San Antonio Texas. Three and a half years later Frederic Bourdin is found by police in Madrid claiming to be Nicholas Barclay. Despite bearing little resemblance to Barclay, indeed having different colour hair and eyes, and speaking with a strong French accent, Barclay’s family welcome Bourdin into their home, convinced he is their missing son/sibling.
What follows confounds expectations and continually asks you to reassess what you had have just seen. The tale is told using haunting archive footage, atmospheric reconstructions and talking head interviews, most notable of which are with Bourdin himself, a deeply troubled but immensely charismatic individual who persuasively puts forward his side of the story. The Imposter is not just one of the best documentaries of the year, it’s one of the best films of the year.
Sitting down with British director Bart Layton and Charlie Parker the private investigator who features prominently in the film, in London’s salubrious Holland Park, I aimed to get some background on this amazing film.
It’s an incredible series of events. Did you find yourselves struggling to believe it as you were uncovering it?
Charlie: I didn’t believe it. From the get-go, I saw his ears and I knew he wasn’t who he said he was. I’d been hired by Hard Copy, a TV station in Texas, and I told them that I’d measured [Bourdin’s] ears and compared them to the real Nicholas Barclay’s and he wasn’t the guy. Hard Copy said ‘end of story’ but I couldn’t let it end though and I needed to find out who he was.
Bart: It was very different for me because I wasn’t living this whole experience in the way that Charlie was, I certainly think it’s very rare that you read about a story that if it was a work of fiction, you’d find it completely far-fetched. It sounds unbelievable, which is why it had to be a documentary rather than a fictionalisation.
When did you first hear of the story of Nicholas Barclay?
Charlie: I was employed by a news station. They had heard that a boy had come here from Spain. He’d been tortured, he’d been in a prison camp, he’d been held hostage against his will and they wanted me to check it out and their producers went and I went with the producers. The real Nicholas Barclay’s picture was sitting there right on the table and Beverly and Carey were to my left and I watched them and their reaction and I could see Bourdin on a screen. I asked the camera man to zoom in on his ears so I could measure his ears. To me that seemed very sophisticated – Scotland Yard used it. The ears age less than any other part of the body. In fact the iris ages, fingerprints age, so I knew it wasn’t Nicholas Barclay and proceeded to try and tell the right people.
Bart: Well I heard about it obviously years after this whole thing happened when I was reading a Spanish magazine and came across the story of Bourdin. It didn’t necessarily go into this episode but it talked about his background, having pretended to be a destitute child for years. I was intrigued so did some more research and found a couple of articles – one in the Guardian and one in the New Yorker Magazine that talked about this incident where he’d successfully stolen the identity of a real kid. Prior to this he’d invented identities and I think this was the first time he’d stolen an identity. I was completely floored by what kind of person would do something like that and what kind of family would be mistaken to that degree.
Did you experience any hostility from the people involved?
Bart: Not hostility, no. I think there was a certain amount of hesitancy on the family’s part as they had participated in news programmes and various pieces of print journalism that they didn’t feel had reflected well upon them and they were hesitant to do anything else. They weren’t hostile, just reluctant at first but at the same time they wanted the opportunity to tell their side of the story as well.
At what point did you decide to use reconstruction footage?
Bart: We weren’t blessed with masses of archive footage – there’s a few pieces of home video footage that was shot by the family or friends of the family which you see in the film and that’s pretty extraordinary. There’s also a bit of news archive but we’ve got a huge amount of story that spans several months. I felt like reconstructions was the right way to approach this story, although it’s not right for every story.
Documentary purists can have a real problem with drama in documentary but it’s problematic when you’re trying to tell people it’s something else, a piece of real archive and I wanted to go the opposite direction, to create a visualisation that was clearly not real. It’s very hyper-real and plays with ideas of memory and subjectivity and it’s kind of dream like in time. It’s very cinematic in a way that reality generally isn’t. It’s an extension of the storytelling, if someone like Bourdin tells you a great story then you’re going to have this movie that plays in your mind and that’s what I wanted to re-create.
Bourdin is an extraordinary individual and I found him the most persuasive person in the film. Is that a typical response?
Bart: He is a great story-teller and part of what he does is manipulate everyone he comes into contact with, probably me as a film-maker included. That felt like something to allow the audience to have some kind of direct experience of.
Charlie: Something interesting that people need to know – after this was over, I got a chance to go into the room that he stayed in and there was his pack that he carried all the time. In it was just two Michael Jackson tapes, hanging in the closet were two pairs of blue jeans, two shirts. That’s all he had to his name. He was sleeping on the floor and I thought when I looked at it ‘What has he gained from all this’? I expected to find rings that he’d stolen, other items in the pack. There was nothing there and you wonder what his mission really was.
His skill at manipulation is far beyond anything we’ve ever seen. He’s been doing that since he was a child. He’s been put in orphanages and had to deal for food and deal with adults for favours, not children, so he knows how to handle an adult and he knows how to be persuasive and I think he’s a master at that. I think what a great spy he would have made. However, I interviewed some of the teachers at the high school where he went and the students really had nothing to do with him. He somehow wasn’t able to convince the students, he was too strange but he convinced the older people to let him in the school and he was able to carry that off but the younger kids in that school wouldn’t have anything to do with him, they thought ‘boy, this is one strange person’.
There’s some interesting musical choices in the film, that relate to the themes. What inspired these choices?
Bart: A lot of it was to do with music that the family liked. Also to do with ideas about Americana and ultimately you make those decisions based on what kind of emotions they’re going to reflect. Things like David Bowie and Cat Stevens had been in the family’s music collection and they were also songs I loved and felt that they fit that mood. The Doobie Brothers felt like the right choice at that time. There’s all these peaks and troughs in terms of the emotional arc of the film and those songs seemed like they summed them up quite well and they spoke to rural America.
Have the Dollarhide / Gibson / Barclay family seen the film and do you still have contact with them?
Charlie: I talked with Carey (Nicholas’ sister) two days ago. I have to maintain a relationship with them if I’m ever going to find Beverly’s son and her brother.
Bart: I showed the family the film prior to Sundance and they were pleased they’d been part of it. They knew those allegations were going to be in it, they knew that there was an investigation into them but they felt it was true to their experience and it was an honest portrayal of what they’d been through.
What is Frederic Bourdin up to now?
Bart: The last I heard from a journalist who went and met with him is he lives a surprisingly normal family life, although he’s still full of anger and all sorts of things which he broadcasts on his internet page. He works in security and does dog training.
The Imposter is in cinemas from Friday 24 August.