The Truth about Lies: 'The Imposter' Exposes a Con Man
A snapshot can give you the impression of uncomplicated data--information simplified and transformed into fact--but for Bart Layton, director of the British documentary The Imposter, some stories need a panoptic approach. He built this doc not from one perspective but from a collection of them, assembled in one mold, sympathies and manipulations included.
The titular "Imposter" is a French-Algerian con man, Frédéric Bourdin, known by French authorities as "The Chameleon." At the age of 23, Bourdin arguably duped a Texas family into believing he was their teenage son who had disappeared three years earlier. How the liar lied is a question that has an answer. How the family believed him a whole other bag. When Layton was confronted with "four or five different, conflicting realities," he felt his "fairest" strategy was to provide them all. I asked him if this "choose your own adventure" approach doesn't make him somehow complicit with his untrustworthy subject, who manipulates by preying on one's sympathies. Manipulation, after all, has a long cinematic tradition.
You'll see points of comparison between The Imposter and the work of Errol Morris--partly because Layton uses re-enactments, and partly because the film unfolds like a murky, post-modern detective story where truth and fiction morph in a beguiling double helix. But the bigger concern with The Imposter is whose side Layton's on--since he clearly feels neutrality requires he show you the con. Who this serves is the next question. As you should expect, answers vary.
Documentary: What was your point of entry into the story?
Bart Layton: I found an article in a Spanish-language magazine about the subject, Frédéric Bourdin, who was then known in France as "The Chameleon." He had been traveling the length and breadth of Europe pretending to be a damaged child. It didn't seem he was doing it for any financial gain; he was institutionalized and he was using it to get shelter in different homes. I was fascinated by that. I did a bit more research and came across this extraordinary story in which he'd successfully stolen the identity of a missing child from Texas. Bourdin is of French/Algerian extraction, with dark hair and dark eyes, and the kid who went missing was blonde and blue-eyed. I was like, "Hold on a minute--What?" So I was trying to understand not only what kind of human being could go through a crime like this, but what kind of a family would fall victim to this.
D: You can't fall victim without a villain...You allow Bourdin--arguably your villain-some surprisingly sympathetic moments. Do you feel that damages your neutrality?
BL: I think it damages your neutrality more if you decide not to allow sympathetic moments. That's equally, if not more, problematic. If you spend time with him or have an experience or contact with Bourdin, you find he's sympathetic. At times you feel taken in by him; you feel he needs to be looked after, he seems childlike. Then other times you also feel completely repelled by him. As an interviewer I realized I was on the receiving end of some of his manipulations. This is a con man; your key witness is a liar and almost the first thing he tells you is, "I'm a liar and this is how I do it." What I wanted to do was allow the audience to experience being on the receiving end of the manipulator. In one sense you need to understand how this was possible. You go into it with questions: How could a family fail to recognize their flesh and blood? How could these people be taken in by this man who so clearly couldn't have been their kid? But when you experience him in the film, you understand how he does what he does.
D: So, the approximation justifies itself. Part of my motivation asking is, this imposter feeds on your sympathy. Allowing that to happen to the audience smacks of complicity.
BL: Absolutely, and that's really important. I'm not quite sure what the alternative is. Is it that you, as the editor, should pass judgment on this human, and all of those judgments you include are like a thesis to prove this person is unworthy of sympathy? Also, what's fairer to the other contributors--to the FBI agent or the family? It's almost fairer for you, the audience, to be put on the receiving end so you realize you're also falling victim to his spell. What the film becomes is not a story about the missing child; it's about our ability to deceive ourselves.
D: And pass judgment?
BL: Your reading is interesting. Self-deception isn't his story; I suppose it's everyone's story. It's not just the lives we choose to believe but the truths we choose that are possibly better than reality. I had to confront you not with one truth, but with four or five different and conflicting versions of the truth, which you have to try to navigate. The fact is, it all comes down to this idea of subjective versions because, in this film, it's all about the illusiveness of truth.
D: You're talking about self-deception like it's a foregone conclusion--much in the way directors say it's inevitable that audiences judge their characters.
BL: I'm not sure I would say that, but in this particular story, part of what it's about is the question of what human beings are capable of; if you need so desperately to believe it, you can. There are some really interesting moments where he, The Imposter, gets his wires crossed. He says things like, "She came for me and she wanted me back." It's almost like he's getting confused about his own lie. He's almost believing his own fiction and certainly this question as to whether the family is deceiving themselves because they desperately want to--I'm not sure it's something you'd expect. It's something this film makes you contemplate.
D: The mother is unemotional. I thought she was beaten down, but that's easy to misconstrue. Did you have a hard time talking with her, provoking elaboration?
BL: Yes. What you see of her is a very accurate representation of how she is as a human being. Her reactions were not terribly emotional. Most mothers likely find her hard to relate to. When I asked her about her missing son, she responded with physical descriptions--not necessarily what you might expect a mother to say about her missing child. But that is absolutely part of her personality and psychology, and you get a sense of that. She's hard to permeate on an emotional level, but who knows? Maybe those emotions are buried, or she doesn't feel emotional about it.
D: The variety of responses to the trauma creates so many orientations to it--you almost choose your own adventure when you choose which person to see the situation through.
BL: If you, as a documentary maker, are somehow charged with the pursuit of an objective truth, and realize along the way that is incredibly elusive, and along with that you're presented with four or five different, conflicting and subjective versions of the truth...As a filmmaker you sit down with those people and you believe the story they want to tell you and sympathize with that story and listen and be with them. You experience the story through their eyes and make a choice about it. I think you choose to go through all these stories. As a filmmaker, how do you respond when you go through one interview one day, convinced of one truth, and another interview on another day convinced of another truth? My idea is to present them as consecutive truths, as lies or subjective realities, and we go on all those journeys. That's what I felt could make this film different and would reflect the subject matter better than any other investigative documentary desperately hunting down an answer that wasn't there. This is about finding different answers by going on everyone's journeys with them. Some of these witnesses aren't reliable, but you are on the receiving end of all of this. Of course I wanted to make a compelling film that did justice to a compelling story, but I also wanted to take the viewer on a journey like the one I did going through the material.
D: I was amazed to read that Mr. Bourdin has a wife and kids.
BL: Yes, and she knows everything and sounds surprisingly normal. There was a question as to how much backstory I should tell conventionally, but I think as an audience, we should be in a similar position where we don't know who he is or what he's there for. It's an experience where you're inside, not outside holding a microscope.
The Imposter opens July 13 in New York City through Indomina Releasing, with additional cities to follow.
Sara Vizcarrando runs the review section at Boxoffice magazine, manages the Opening Movies section at Rottentomatoes.com and teaches film at DeAnza College.