Documentary: “The Imposter”

The Imposter PosterThe Imposter (2012)

This story would have been nice fiction if it were also not so very true. This awards-winning documentary details the real story of Frederic Bourdin, a French confidence trickster, who impersonated Nicholas Barclay, a boy from Texas, who, in turn, vanished without a trace when he was thirteen in 1993. This documentary is really akin to some fast-paced and compelling thriller, and one has to remind oneself that the events depicted actually happened. But, how could they have, really? And what may a twenty-three year old French man found in Spain have in common with a thirteen-year old American boy who disappeared from his home in 1993? At first glance – nothing at all, and, at second glance – perhaps the desire to be found and loved. Bart Layton (American Animals (2018)) raises many issues in his documentary, making it personal, compelling and suspenseful. 

Much of this documentary is shown through the eyes of the conman – Frederic Bourdin, and it is thrilling to see the events through the eyes of the guilty man. This makes the portrayal so much more personal and somehow intimate. After he was “found” wondering the streets of Spain, Bourdin, without telling anyone who he is, somehow managed to impersonate one of the counsellors in Spain and called the US to report that Spanish authorities found a lost American boy – who the US and he “confirm” to probably be Nicholas Barclay. Bourdin then impersonated the American boy, and the audacity of his machinations beggars belief. We get the impression that Bourdin is an excellent psychologist who knows exactly how people think, and he is also a big risk-taker with nothing to lose. The amazement does not stop there, and, when Bourdin is presented as Nicholas Barclay to “his” American family, they actually “recognise” him as their long-missing family member and take him home.

Bourdin’s actions were indefensible since he preyed on people’s kindness and willingness to help, as well as exploited the psychology of people who went through terrible physical and sexual abuse. However, one cannot help but also be amazed at Bourdin’s adaptability and brazenness. It usually takes two sides for an impersonation trick of this nature to be pulled off, and it is not only Bourdin’s acting that contributed to him passing as Nicholas, but also authorities and family’s response to him and their desire to believe in a happy ending. When the trick was pulled, Bourdin and Nicholas’s family seemed to have found a win-win solution to their problems, with Bourdin finally being someone who he is not and feeling wanted and loved, and the family finding their Nicholas. In light of this, the documentary really becomes a story about feelings of love and desire to believe triumphing over common sense.

The Imposter is also a suspenseful documentary because, with each action of Bourdin, the audience just does not know when the dramatic exposure will happen – when Bourdin, posing as Nicholas, meets the family of Nicholas for the first time at the airport, or when he is being interviewed by the FBI? The amount of acting and deception that must involve in impersonating a boy almost ten years younger must also be immense. Bourdin notes when telling his story that Nicholas Barclay looked nothing like him: Bourdin has black hair and dark eyes, and the boy had light brown hair and blue eyes. Bourdin explains that “the only thing [Nicholas] got in common with [him] was five fingers on a hand”. The story and the deception here are so unbelievable that it reminds of the infamous real machinations of Frank William Abagnale Jr. (see movie Catch Me If You Can (2002)).

Another amazing thing is that serious doubts about Bourdin’s identity only started to emerge when Bourdin himself started to take even greater risks by appearing publicly with claims of his previous abuse and when a private investigator was called to the scene. The story does not even end there and some disturbing claims emerge from Bourdin about the family that welcomed him into its midst with open arms.

The story of Bourdin’s impersonation of Nicholas Barclay has many unbelievable elements, and Layton’s documentary lives up to the incredulous material. It tells the story through the interviews with Bourdin and members of Nicholas Barclay’s family, dramatic re-enacted sequences and achieved TV news footages. It deals with the issues of personal identity and family psychology, and really showcases the tendency of humans to believe and hope for the best, even when they know deep inside that the chances of a happy outcome are slim. The documentary also uncovers the psychology of an imposter, his motivations and thought processes, as well as the nature of certain lies to “snowball” to such proportions that the unbelievable becomes in time pretty much believable and almost factual.

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3 Responses to Documentary: “The Imposter”

  1. John Charet says:

    Great review 🙂 I have not seen this film yet, but it sounds interesting the way you talk about it. Anyway, keep up the great work as always 🙂

  2. It’s a long time since I saw this film but I remember being blown away by the strangeness of it.

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