Sundance 2012: The unbelievable truths of 'The Imposter'
"The Imposter," screening as part of Sundance's World Cinema Documentary Competition, is just the sort of thing that makes people say truth is stranger than fiction. Telling the story of how a 23-year-old French Algerian man in Spain with dark hair and dark eyes came to pass himself off as a blond-haired, blue-eyed boy from Texas who'd been missing for nearly four years -- fooling international officials and, most incredibly, the boy's family -- the film is an examination of deception, self-deception and the desire to believe.
Directed by the 36-year-old English filmmaker Bart Layton, who has made many documentaries for British television and with "The Imposter" makes his feature film debut, the film screened Wednesday afternoon to a packed house at the festival's Temple Theatre. At the conclusion, one could sense people in the room collectively shaking their heads in bewilderment, unable to believe some of the twists in the story and asking themselves the core question of "How could they all not know?"
Layton interviewed the impostor, named Frederic Bourdin and now living in France, for two days for the film, and the decision to allow a notorious liar to tell his own story gives the film a specific charge.
"I felt like that was part of the story we were trying to tell," Layton said in an interview following the screening. "I felt if he was manipulating me in the interview, then he was going to be manipulating the audience. I shouldn't try to sanitize or filter that. My thinking was that he should be allowed to do that, and to give the audience the respect they deserve to interpret that the right way."
Besides his interview with Bourdin, Layton also spoke to the boy's family, the U.S. consul in Madrid who issued the impostor an American passport, the San Antonio FBI agent assigned to investigate the boy's disappearance once he seemingly returned and a colorful private investigator named Charlie Parker.
Among Layton's boldest decisions is his extensive use of re-created scenes with actors, bringing to life Bourdin's recollections and other scenes with a real movie-movie flair.
"Re-creations, it's a slight dirty word, isn't it?" said Layton. "I'd like to find a new term for this kind of work because I don't think they're re-creations or re-enactments or reconstructions. It's like a visualization of a version of the truth. That was the idea. So I thought, 'Can we do something that looks like a conventional documentary at the start and then freezes and goes back somewhere new?' We're going to take you somewhere in between a movie, a film noir and a documentary."
-- Mark Olsen, in Park City, Utah
Photo: "The Imposter." Credit: Sundance Film Festival