A new British documentary showing at Dom Kino tells the unbelievable story of a serial imposter.
Published: November 21, 2012 (Issue # 1736)
A serial imposter — and a hugely successful one at that — is the central character of an extraordinary new British documentary that starts screening at Dom Kino on Nov. 22.
“The Imposter” is the story of a lie that became larger than life. Lies are what makes the main character tick. The story unfolds as we learn about the disappearance of Nicholas Barclay, a carefree 13-year-old boy with blue eyes and blond hair from San Antonio, Texas. The boy went missing in 1993, and the film shows us his sudden resurface three years later in Linares, Spain. Here is when the breathtaking con begins. The man who claimed to be Barclay was Frederic Bourdin, a 23-year-old French-Algerian man of frighteningly strong manipulative skills. With deep brown eyes and a hint of dark black stubble, a heavy accent and flawed English, and at seven years older than the lost boy, he effectively convinced the boy’s relatives as well as investigators — and later on, when he appeared on national TV channels, millions of ordinary Americans — that he was indeed Barclay.
It was during a television talk show that his lie was exposed: One of the experts working on the case was watching the program and comparing the fake Barclay’s face to a photograph of the real Barclay up on the wall behind the imposter during the interview. At one point, the two faces were shown from an identical angle, and it suddenly struck the investigator that the shape of the ears was glaringly different. Amazingly, no DNA test had been carried out until the ear shapes were contrasted — a revealing testimony of the trickster’s qualifications in lying.
In his debut film, director Bart Layton interweaves documentary interviews with Bourdin and the many people that he had fooled together with reconstructions of key episodes that allowed the lie first to flourish and then to be discovered.
In one way, during the 95-minute masterpiece of cinematic suspense, Bourdin gives a priceless master class in fooling people. From a person with a proven record of 39 identity thefts, it is worth a fortune.
The film shows that sometimes, direct lying is not even necessary when dealing with people who want to be fooled, and who stubbornly stick to their illusions, come what may. Yet gaining access to Bourdin’s mental laboratory is fascinating. How could an adult in his twenties successfully pretend he was a teenager of another nationality, deceiving police, social workers, diplomats and even the relatives of the person he was imitating?
Bravado and confidence are the key to success, Bourdin tells us. Covering as much of the face as possible and not talking much, imitating being in shock and deeply traumatized is another trick. The overwhelming sympathy that such behavior is likely to evoke in others will safely muffle any suspicions they may have. When facing someone who is tangibly suffering, people’s first reaction is generally to help, to attempt to sooth their pain, whether physical or moral, and the question of whether the person’s eye color does in fact match the description of someone they claim to be is left aside.
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