If Truth and Fiction were in a head to head competition to discover which would win the title of Most Strange, I’m sure most of us would agree that Truth would win the medal. How else could I have bumped into my next door neighbour in a tiny bar in a remote village in the bush of Tanzania? Further supporting the theory is The Imposter, a documentary by Bart Layton doing rather well in selected theatres.
In 1994, in Texas, a 13-year-old blond, blue-eyed boy (Nicholas Barclay) disappears off the streets on his way home. Three years pass and then, out of the blue, a young man turns up in Spain, apparently traumatised, who claims to be the missing teenager. The fact that this person is clearly far older than 16, has brown eyes, has dyed blond hair, has dark beard growth and speaks with a foreign accent, does nothing to stop this family from taking them into their home and hearts. Of course he would be changed, they tell the FBI. Of course he would remember very little. The story this young man tells horrifies the FBI – organised, endless sexual abuse at the hands of an international circle involving the American armed forces. It’s too horrendous to be true. It’s too horrendous to be made up.
The Imposter tells the story through sit-down interviews with The Imposter himself, and with family members – especially the sister, the brother-in-law and the mother. These are interspersed with re-enactments of key moments, such as the discovery, the reunion, the first bus trip to school and so on. There are also home videos and more imaginative interpretations of certain scenes. The latter are rare but extremely well done and lighten the mood.
The tale develops from the reunion to the discovery of the truth, throwing up all sorts of possibilities that make the jaw drop, none of which are proven or disproved. This fits well with the film’s atmosphere of incredulity.
When the truth, such as it is, and it is a very odd kind of truth, emerges it is astounding and makes you want to start the film all over again.
I was slightly uncomfortable watching the interviews with the family, at their manipulation by the filmmaker, but then who could blame them for what they thought? If it were true. And that wondering, bemusement, disbelief, confidence that we would recognise our loved one, is the whole point of The Imposter.
While I enjoyed the film, I was not as blown away by it as I had expected to be after reading reviews. I grew up watching a tradition of fine documentary-making, thanks to the BBC and Channel 4, week in and week out. The enthusiastic reception for The Imposter is a reminder of what I once took for granted and is now a rarity to be treasured. The upside of films such as this, following on from Senna, TT3D, Cave of Forgotten Dreams, George Harrison: Living in the Material World, Jig etc, is the truth that audiences are clearly willing to pay to see good documentaries on the big screen.
The tragedy of The Imposter, though, is Nicholas.