Hot Docs 2012: The Imposter

The first moving picture machine was invented by the blind Belgian physicist Joseph Plateau in 1832 and dubbed the phenakistoscope, coming from the root Greek word “phenakizein” meaning “to deceive” or “to cheat”. Decades later, Edison scooped up the phantoscope projection technology, rechristening it the vitascope, perhaps to market it as a means of seeing true life, as opposed to appearances and fantasy. Whatever you call it, film has always been a medium of trickery, and documentaries are not exempt from the rule.

The beautifully skewed vision of The Imposter — a portrait of a trickster — is a triumph, albeit a troubling one. Fakers will themselves into being and are exposed, apparently without much consequence. Playing off this apparent amorality, director Bart Layton cultivates a film noir feel through dramatic recreations and moody establishing shots. The documentary masterfully riffs on how beliefs are constructed when faces efface, facts distort, truths ring hollow only to convincingly resound, and connecting threads are spun out of thin air, only to be loosened and frayed.

The Imposter guides us through the story of Frederic Bourdin’s success impersonating 16-year-old Nicholas Barclay, who went missing in San Antonio Texas four years prior. At age 23 with brown eyes, a thick French accent, and badly dyed hair, Bourdin managed to live with the Barclays for three months before he was exposed as a fraud by a private investigator.

Bourdin assumed almost 40 false identities through the course of his “career” as an impersonator, including the identities of two additional missing children. Cruel, for certain, but Bourdin seems frank, plucky, and surprisingly non-delusional. He’s a wicked liar and impossibly likeable.

Bourdin wasn’t interested in money or sexual exploits, but instead got off on the prospect of a clean slate and a basic safety net. Born unwanted, he felt at home with abandoned teenagers. He comes off as remarkably talented and strangely pure.

The film focuses on Bourdin and the Barclay family — sister Carey and mom Bev in particular — but the secondary players are equally captivating, particularly FBI Special Agent Nancy Fisher, who is reminiscent of Fargo’s Marge Gunderson, and Charlie Parker, a local private investigator with sharp eyes, a fine set of suspenders, and a love of hotcakes. 

Although deeply tempting, events make it impossible to write off the Barclays as either dumb, hillbilly suckers or innocent, exploited victims, despite the fact that Bev Barclay states her main goal was “not to think” after the disappearance of her son. Although laughter broke out throughout the theatre at the line, the joke is an uncomfortable one. Bev’s unthinking tendencies may be more strategic than we think, and we too find ourselves tempted into rooting for Bourdin in some way or another, despite ourselves. We buy in.

The film closes with a “fuck you” courtesy of our seducer, yet maddeningly his outward defiance still seems to suggest an internal vulnerability and longing — and this feels like the true curse. Bourdin still manages to elicit concern. Knowledge, it seems, is not so powerful as we may hope. We may be total suckers.

It’s this feeling of believing despite ourselves, despite our knowledge and our uncertainty that makes The Imposter a thoughtful and affecting film. It entertains us while reminding us that, swayed by the colour of our emotions or or the narrowness of our experiences, we can’t help but draw lines, tell stories, infer connections, and align ourselves — justification be damned. 

- Emily Hass


The Imposter plays again Monday April 30 at 11am at the Isabel Bader Theatre. Tickets 'n' stuff here.

Find all of our coverage of Hot Docs 2012 here.


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