I complain a lot about contemporary documentaries. That's because too many documentarians keep making the same distracting mistakes. They condescend to their subjects. They use cutesy animations. They stage reenactments.
Reenactments bother me the most. When When I watch documentaries, I'm mainly interested in what was actually recorded and what witnesses and experts describe. I'm less interested in clumsy playacting.
I sadly report that The Imposter, about shocking events that befell a Texas family in the 1990s, features perhaps the most reenactments I've seen in a feature documentary. True, director Bart Layton found a novel way to film them. In some instances, they star not professional actors but his real-life subjects.
It's an intriguing twist, and a more sophisticated, restrained film might use the technique to unsettling effect. But Layton amps up his story with too many clichés of lurid tabloid television: bombastic music, creepily processed home video. Layton earned his trash-TV bona fides as the creator of National Geographic Channel's Locked Up Abroad. This is his first theatrical release.
The Imposter centers on the French con man Frédéric Bourdin, who for unfathomable reasons has impersonated a series of troubled or abandoned youths. His story was told in greater and more compelling detail by David Grann in a 2008 New Yorker article.
In 1997, at age 23, Bourdin pretended to be a teenager and was taken in by Spanish police. He discovered the case of Nicholas Barclay, a 13-year-old San Antonio boy who disappeared in 1994. Bourdin somehow convinced the authorities and the family that he was the missing child, and he lived for a few months as a Texas high school student. Then his story fell apart.
There were big problems with his ruse. For one, Nicholas Barclay had blond hair and blue eyes, but Bourdin has dark hair and dark eyes. He solved that conundrum by bleaching his hair and concocting a horrifying story about being abducted by military personnel who conducted grisly experiments, including eye injections.
Nicholas' family believed that this trauma explained absurd inconsistencies like Bourdin's French accent. I can imagine a great documentary about that phenomenon alone, about our capacity for denial.
The epidemic of missing children is devastating, and so many families have been traumatized. Bourdin was monstrously cruel to prey on grieving, hopeful people. Crueler still, this pathological liar accused family members of murdering the child.
It's all very sad, and Layton missteps badly in employing his reenactment gimmick to tell this particular story. The effect of seeing real people in reenactments verges on comical. When it comes to missing children, that's not the right tone.