Flick of the Day: The Imposter

It is rare for a film to truly surprise you. Very often you know at least a brief outline of the plot and who is in it and you may even have read a few reviews.  This has its advantages of course, one obvious one being you get to choose the films you want to see. However it does mean that film will rarely shock you or challenge what you thought the film was going to be about. I had the pleasure this evening of seeing the latest film from British documentary film-maker Bart Layton without any prior knowledge of the subject matter and it made for an excellent viewing experience.
In 1994 in San Antonio, Texas,  13 year old Nicholas Barclay telephoned home from a basketball court a few miles from his house. His older brother Jason answered and Nicholas asked for a ride home. Their mother who worked nights was asleep in the next room. Jason didn't like to wake her so he told Nicholas to walk.  Nicholas was never seen again and no trace of him was ever found despite an exhaustive search. He remained on the missing persons list as the years went by. Three years later the Spanish police picked up a young boy who was monosyllabic and cowering in the doorway of a telephone kiosk. After a lengthy interview, the boy revealed that he was an American who had been abducted three years previously. He claims to be Nicholas Barclay. Despite the improbable nature of such an eventuality, Nicholas sister Carey travels to Spain and confirms the boy's identity and he is quickly reunited with his family. Of course we the audience know that this is not Nicholas, this is the work of serial French impostor Frederic Bourdin. It soon becomes apparent to all that whoever this man is, it isn't the long lost Nicholas, including the FBI special agent charged with interviewing him. There are so many inconsistencies in his tale and basic flaws like a difference in eye colour, that it is obvious. However, this is when the tale shifts on you and this is why it is great film making. The family refuse to provide DNA samples to prove the fraud and keep the impostor as their son. It is almost as if they have a reason for wanting to believe the lie, as if perhaps there is more to Nicholas disappearance then it first appears.
Perhaps the strongest element of Bart Layton's extraordinary film is the decision to lay out the tale from the outset and allow the audience to make their own mind up about what happened. It creates tension in a story that is tension filled already giving the film the kind of dramatic conclusion normally scene in Hollywood thrillers.  We are also left with the feeling that neither side is telling the absolute truth but that Frederic Bourdin is an inveterate liar with a deep undiagnosed psychological problem. He is a chameleon who never really reveals his true self on screen. 
The truth becomes something which you never have a grasp on, a tricky path for a documentary to follow. It is at times deeply sad, at times quite unintentionally humorous such is the bizarre nature of some of the characters who populate this story, but it is always compelling. I normally avoid any documentary where actors are used to dramatize events that were never captured on film but the clever mixture of this method with interview footage with all of the main parties give the film a dramatic weight.
 An extraordinary story and a very good film, I saw The Impostor as it was screening as the opening film of the IFI's Stranger Than Fiction documentary film festival. If you do have the opportunity to see it, I strongly urge you to take it.