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The Imposter

Truth may generally be stranger than fiction, but this truth is the very strangest.
By Rima Sabina Aouf
March 08, 2013
By Rima Sabina Aouf
March 08, 2013

A lot of doco makers rely on the adage that 'truth is stranger than fiction'. A few supremely lucky ones find a story that is so mind-bogglingly strange that they could sit back and let the film make itself.

The Imposter is just such a story, at every stage revealing another layer of the bizarreness of which human beings are capable. British director Bart Layton is no slouch, either; the film is slickly made, metring out its tantalising information and almost single-handedly reviving the use of re-creation as a respected documentary tool.

The subject is an incident in 1997 in which a 17-year-old Texan boy, Nicholas Barclay, was returned to his family after having been missing for three years. Except he turned up in Spain, had no physical resemblance to the missing blue-eyed boy, was noticeably older, and spoke with a French accent. He was accepted back into the family regardless. His sister thought she could recognise that smile anywhere. From the relatives to the authorities, everyone around him seemed ready to excuse the differences, taking the 'he's not the little boy you knew' trope to extreme and literal levels.

In reality, the boy was French con man Frederic Bourdin, a 23-year-old obsessively seeking the comfort of childhood. At first, it seems the documentary reveals his identity prematurely, almost right from the beginning — but that's just because you don't know, at that point, of all the twists that remain for the story to take.

The supremely tense Imposter features sensitive, in-depth interviews with almost all of the major characters in the incident, including Bourdin, the FBI agent who handled his repatriation, the PI whose suspicions uncovered the truth and Nicholas's mother and sister. Without them, no number of re-creations could have carried the story so far or got you close to understanding any of these people's motivations. And as for the re-creations, they're filmed with a keen cinematographer's eye and a sense of enigma, putting them at a long distance from those we're used to on made-for-TV specials.

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