‘The Imposter’ Gives a Startling Look at the Human Psyche

The Mark Twain quote “truth is stranger than fiction” is oft-repeated in documentary reviews, and it’s tough to think of a film where the saying is more accurate than The Imposter, an eerie and fascinating docu-thriller being released nationwide this Friday. The premise hooks like a top-notch narrative: a 13-year-old boy disappears one summer evening outside of San Antonio in 1994; three and a half years later, someone claiming to be him turns up in a village in southern Spain, telling tales of kidnapping, torture and clandestine military sex rings. The apparently traumatized teenager is sent home to his overjoyed family, though as the title suggests, this person has actually taken on this young man’s identity, a con man trying to escape his own past. The twists and turns only pick up from there, inevitably leading to a rich conversation after the film ends and a possible realization that even you—your unflappable self—may have been duped.

There are two elements of The Imposter that make it one of the most memorable documentary experiences you may ever have. The first are the constant reenactments that have feature film-quality production value, making it seem as if you are watching both a documentary and a fictional narrative at the same time. The second, the core of the film, is the interview with Nicolas Bourdin, the imposter himself, who speaks openly and candidly about the entire experience. You come to realize that not only are you seeing a bizarre, real-life mystery unravel, but the film also explores the psyche of a rare species: the chameleon in human form. While the forgettable narrative feature entitled The Chameleon was chronicled the same story in 2010, it neglected to delve into the most important aspect of the story: why would someone do this? I had the opportunity to chat with the English filmmakers, director Bart Layton and producer Dimitri Doganis, about how they made the film, differentiated it from the narrative feature panned a few years before and what they ultimately believed to be true.

How did you come across the story in the first place?
Bart Layton:I found it at a friend’s house in a Spanish magazine called Interview, which is basically  high-end journalism and pornography mixed together—a magazine that could only exist in Spain. In this issue was a story about Frederic Bourdin, aka the Chameleon as he is better known, and it hooked me. After a bit more research of both British and American press, we discovered the story of how he impersonated Nicholas Barclay, the young boy who disappeared in Texas. As a documentary filmmaker, you wait forever to happen upon a story as compelling as this one and most people don’t ever find it.

Had The Chameleon already gone into production when you started on this?
Dimitri Doganis:I think it had, but we didn’t know anything about it until we got to A&E in New York. But they weren’t even remotely bothered by it, especially after seeing the premiere at Tribeca.
BL: I forbade anyone on set from seeing it, ourselves included. No one from the production was allowed to see it while we were making our film.
DD: From the beginning, we had a very strong conviction that you cannot tell this story better as a scripted, fictionalized version as it no longer has to be real.
BL: The power of it is that it’s true. It’s actually not very plausible as a fictional story. You need it to have actually happened for it to work. You wouldn’t buy it!
DD: People still struggle with it after they’ve seen it. Every few Q&As, someone will ask if it’s based on a true story…

How did you convince Frederic Bourdin to talk to you and be the centerpiece of the film?
DD: We knew the only way to do this story justice was to have Bourdin telling it from his perspective. So we put our development team on to tracking him down.

How long did that take?
DD: Not long. He’s not hard to find. He’s incredibly hard to deal with, however.
BL: Specifically to win his trust. He wanted to make sure we were serious, so he made us bring him to London and we chatted about the approach of the film and how he would be telling his story in his own words. He’s someone who is deeply suspicious of everyone and has never been pleased with how he has been portrayed in the media in the past.
DD: He has a history of seeking out the media’s attention but then, perhaps, not necessarily enjoying the results of it.
BL: As soon as we won his trust and he agreed to be in the film, we did the main interview with him. It took 2 days, but for all we knew this was the only shot we would get with him, due to his rather sketchy history.

Did he ever manipulate you first-hand?
BL: When you sit with him, you feel yourself feeling sorry for him, which is despicable. And he’s the only one who looks straight into the camera in the film, looking us all right in the eye and tells us the story he wants to tell. In a way, we wanted to allow him to manipulate us and in turn manipulate the audience, because that’s what the film is ultimately about—manipulation. Competing versions of the truth—the way we are deceived and the ways we deceive ourselves.
DD: You know how some people have perfect pitch in music? He has perfect pitch with human emotions. He wins trust, sympathy and will learn what buttons to push with people almost immediately.
BL: You can be charmed by him.

How about the family? Were they cautious about talking to you?
DD: They felt like they had been misrepresented in the press, as well. What we had to do was convince them they were integral to the vision of the film. We wanted them to tell the story from their point of view and that we needed to see it through their eyes. [The Chameleon] cast them in an awful light and we had to have a number of honest conversations with them before they understood that we were trying to do their side of the story justice.
BL: I’m pleased that they were pleased, in the end. We showed it to them before Sundance and they felt it was honest to their experience.

How about Frederic Bourdin? What did he think?
BL: He actually hasn’t seen it yet. We want to screen it with him and that’s been tough to arrange. I think he’ll… well, I actually don’t know what he’ll think. There’s no way to tell with someone like him.

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