The Imposter: A Documentary Thriller

By Shazia Javed • Published on October 29, 2012

[C]onsider this: A film that has a con-man, a private investigator, an FBI special agent, a psychiatrist and a former US counsel among its subjects; a bizarre case of stolen identity at the center of its plot; and an emotionally charged narrative of a distressed mother and a sister of a missing sixteen year old boy. Now picture all of the above with great camera-work and high-production values. The Imposter has all the elements that make for a commercially viable and entertaining thriller as we know it, excepting that, it is not a work of fiction. It is a documentary.

In 1994, a thirteen year old boy, Nicholas, goes missing in Texas, America. Three and a half years later, his family receives news that he has been found thousands of miles away in Spain. This found “Nicholas” is in-fact a 23 year old imposter, Frédéric Bourdin who has darker skin and brown eyes while Nicholas who went missing was white, blue-eyed and blonde. Also, he speaks with a strange accent which is nothing like what the missing boy spoke. Then how and why, despite such apparent differences, is he accepted into the family and starts living with them? And what happened to real Nicholas?

Director Bart Layton does justice to and builds on this intriguing tale, through creative re-enactments, complete with low-key lighting and black and white effects, qualifying the film, in his own words, to be termed as “non-fiction film noir”. He does not present us with the facts nor tells us what to think. Rather, we are regaled with all sides of its “elusive truth” as the film allows everyone-the missing boy’s family, the FBI agent who is duped by Frédéric, the private investigator who takes upon himself to find the truth, and Frédéric himself- to relate the chain of events in this story. Oftentimes, Layton gets his subjects to talk about the past events in present tense – as if they are in the moment. Even in re-enactments, he sticks to the voices of his subjects by lip-syncing their audio on the actors; thus infusing them with authenticity which a documentary commands.  With such master craftsmanship, it is no surprise that The Imposter was voted as the favourite film by attending filmmakers with official selections at this year’s Hot Docs.

One does, however, question the central moral of the film (more so because it is a documentary) as it ends up glamorizing a criminal in its attempt to captivate the audience. This is especially so, since the incident of a missing child, that triggers it all, is an unhappy one. Regardless of what your take might be on the social/ethical purpose a documentary film should serve, The Imposter is a must watch. It is a cleverly-made film which will engage you in its mystery and leave you fascinated with its main subject: the imposter.

Shazia Javed is a Toronto-based writer, photographer and filmmaker. Her documentary “Namrata” was an official selection at Hot Docs Toronto and a finalist for three AMPIA (Alberta Media Production Industries Association) awards. Her interest areas include Indian cinema, gender representations, Islam and women in the media, and documentary films.

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