The denial of truth is quite an exemplary topic in many documentaries, but has never been so intricately and boldly explored in The Imposter, a mouth-gapingly brilliant piece of investigative journalism that transcends the documentary genre as a medium to expose truth. Here, the goal is to uncover the reason and logic behind the case of one Frederic Bourdin, a 23-year old French charlatan who claims to be the 16-year old Texan, Nicholas Barclay, who had gone AWOL at thirteen. Talking heads pop up, atmospheric recreations ensue, and after all is said and done, this documentary somehow (miraculously) transforms into something more than it is – a defiantly cinematic portrait of the human faculty to manipulate truth. Which says a lot about this documentary, which never pretends to know everything, but rather observe, penetrate and assess the people involved in this mind-boggling case. Truth is subjective after all.
Director Bart Layton employs unorthodox techniques in this documentary, shifting time and space, going backwards and forwards in what seems to be a linear narrative, and jumping from one interviewee to another. Cleverly, Layton solves the mystery for us right at the beginning, presenting the fraudster Bourdin, as he rather eloquently recounts his successful attempts in fooling both the grieving Barclay family and the establishment of American immigration. It’s not so much a whodunnit mystery, but rather a how-dunnit, clearly implying Layton’s objective. Although he’s fascinated (including us) by Bourdin’s borderline psychotic behaviour, he’s also very much interested by how a seemingly innocuous, middle-class American family easily accepted Bourdin, whose brown-eyed, dark, tallish, French-Algerian features have nothing in common with the missing blue-eyed, blonde Texan boy, as their missing son.
We get to hear from various perspectives the tribulations of the family (hopeful sister, grieving mother, slightly nonchalant brother-in-law) as the documentary suddenly takes on a Rashomon-like approach in investigation. Who is really telling the truth? Or rather, who is fabricating it? This is where The Imposter really triumphs – almost as good as any work of cinematic fiction that deals with the nature of truth and denial, such as the aforementioned Rashomon, 12 Angry Men and the recent The Social Network. This documentary barely condemns anyone involved, not even Bourdin himself, who somehow emerges as an anti-hero, turning out to be the most fascinating, even frighteningly outspoken out of all involved, but it definitely casts a permeating light into the darkness that lies at the heart of American suburbia.
One of the finest films of the year turns out to be a documentary. The Imposter is a bold, compelling tour-de-force that employs cinematic techniques to explore the nature of truth, deception and storytelling itself. Above all, it defies documentary conventions to expose a darker side of the human mind as good as any work of fiction does.