Bart Layton’s frequently jaw-dropping documentary The Imposter nimbly illustrates the old cliché: truth is stranger than fiction. A sensational blend of interviews, archive footage, reconstructions and investigative reporting, the film arranges the real-life story of a missing child as a mesmerising psychological thriller. You’ll still be talking about it, as I am, weeks after seeing it.
In 1994, the Barclay family of blue-collar San Antonio, Texas were left distraught by the sudden disappearance of their 13-year-old son, Nicholas. He was the light of their lives, the family say, a bustling bundle of energy glimpsed in eerily fuzzy home video footage. Their frantic search for the youngster made the local news, for a couple of nights, but their hunt led nowhere and the police and media moved on to the next case. Three years later, the phone rings. It’s the Spanish police, who have picked up a teenager who claims to be Nicholas Barclay.
Found huddled in a phone box, traumatised and confused, Nicholas claims to have escaped from a secret prison in the desert, where he had been brought by child-abusing US military officials, experimented upon with drugs and tortured. It’s a surreal story, but it appears to check out. Within hours, Nicholas’ sister Carey is on a plane. In front of the Spanish authorities, she positively identifies the young man as her brother. Never mind that the blonde, blue-eyed 16 year-old now had brown hair, brown eyes, brown stubble and spoke with a French accent: Nicholas was found at last.
The mystery of the young teenager’s disappearance did not end with his apparent discovery: a far greater puzzle was about to reveal itself. The Barclay’s had brought a cuckoo into their nest. Frédéric Bourdin was a 23 year old French-Algerian orphan with a long history of impersonation, petty crime and manipulation. Somehow, he had discovered the details of Nicholas’ case and transformed himself into an American teenager. He fooled his own “mother” Beverly and the rest of his immediate family. He fooled the rest of the townspeople, the local news journalists and his old school friends. He fooled immigration officers, embassy officials and the FBI.
Consulting every interested party, whose testimony is sometimes contradictory, Layton’s extraordinary film poses two key questions: how was Bourdin able to achieve this deception and why did Nicholas’s family accept him as their long-lost son? The answer to the first is explained like a police procedural (and is astonishing enough by itself) but it’s when Layton and the loquacious and charismatic Bourdin get into the second question that the film’s strangest secrets uncover themselves. I’ll say no more: there are some stories you just have to hear for yourselves.