The Right Way for Documentaries to Tell Real Stories With Fake Footage

The Imposter is about a tale stranger than fiction—and used fictionalized sequences to present that tale.

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Indomina Films

Every once in a while, a documentarian stumbles on a dream project: an unpredictable and gripping story unfolding in the present, in front of the lens. These films are a thrill to watch, as the sense of discovery that must have washed over the filmmaker at every unexpected turn is condensed and heightened for the viewer.

The Imposter is not one of those films.

The events documented by director Bart Layton took place more than 15 years ago. Nicholas Barclay, a 13-year-old from San Antonio disappeared in 1994; three years later, he was found in Spain and reunited with his family after a harrowing experience of imprisonment and sexual abuse. The catch? The person in Spain claiming to be Barclay was actually 23-year-old Frédéric Bourdin, who managed to convince Barclay's entire family that he was their lost son and brother, despite being six years too old, speaking in a French accent, and looking nothing like the blonde, blue-eyed kid they'd lost. The facts of this case are well-known enough that Bourdin—who has a long history of assuming others' identities—is a minor criminal celebrity in Europe. A narrative film about the incident, starring the likes of Ellen Barkin and Famke Janssen, came out just two years ago. There should be no real surprises here. Why, then, is the experience of watching The Imposter one of edge-of-the-seat disbelief and nerve-jangling thrills?

The answer can be found in Layton's decision to liberally employ re-enactments to elevate what might otherwise have been nothing but a talking-head documentary with a smattering of archival news footage. From one of the film's first scenes, as a camera slowly pushes in on a phone booth during a rain storm, recreating the phone call Bourdin made to get himself into a Spanish children's shelter, Layton makes plain his belief in the power of carefully constructed "fake" footage to illustrate the scenes described by his interviewees. But these aren't the cheesy re-enactments of low-budget, true-crime television shows. Layton shows a kind of restraint in the way he employs these sequences, never letting them become completely staged and scripted scenes, but rather using them as moving illustrations for the stories as they're told.

Layton also blurs the lines elegantly between his interview footage and the re-enactments. Just before transitioning from a re-enactment back to an interview, the actor playing the interviewee sometimes lip-syncs the words being spoken in the interview. At other times, when an interviewee is describing a phone call, Layton will filter their voice as if heard through a telephone, using the sound editing to make his primary footage into a kind of auditory re-enactment. Finally, Layton playfully pre-empts critics who might complain that re-enactments posing as truth undermine the veracity of a documentary, by inserting a few clips from old, fictional, TV-cop shows, as if they were part of the re-enactments themselves. It's a cleverly self-aware move that reminds the viewer that these are illustrations, and no one should confuse them for reality.

Of course, that still won't necessarily shield The Imposter from criticism over its use of manufactured footage. Some people simply balk at the notion of staged sequences finding their way into nonfiction filmmaking. But why should that be? Playing with the notion of truth has been a part of the genre ever since Robert Flaherty staged scenes in what is generally regarded to be the very first feature-length documentary, Nanook of the North, in 1922. One of the most celebrated living documentarians, Errol Morris, uses re-enactments all the time, and in his 1988 film The Thin Blue Line, the sections he staged ended up being key to getting an innocent man off death row.

The knock against staging documentary footage is that it's manipulative and lessens the impact of the truth in a documentary's primary sources. That's an awfully naïve notion, though. One need only watch Orson Welles's final masterpiece, F for Fake, a slyly provocative documentary essay about the nature of truth in art, to be reminded that film is inherently a manipulation. There is no truth beyond what the filmmakers decide to create in the editing suite, and given that "real" footage is just as easily distorted by a good editor as "fake" scenes, saying that the latter doesn't belong in a documentary is an arbitrary call at best.

If recent years have taught us anything, it's that the documentary is an extremely malleable form. Last year alone saw brilliant entries at both extremes of the re-enactment spectrum. On one end, there was Senna, the documentary about the famous Formula One driver, made up of nothing but archival footage, sans narration or newly shot material. At the other, there was The Arbor, a film about British playwright Andrea Dunbar that was almost entirely composed of staged footage, as actors lip-synced recorded interviews with the real people involved. Both films are fantastic, and neither has a greater claim to the truth of its portrayal of its subject over the other.

In comparison, The Imposter is almost traditional in its use of re-enactments as literal recreations of the events related in the film's interviews. What sets the film apart is the way in which Layton uses this staged reality to heighten the tension of the film's slowly unfolding mystery.

That mystery has little to do with Bourdin's subterfuge. That story is so well-established by now that rather than try to obscure and slowly reveal any of Bourdin's secrets, he practically makes the imposter the film's master of ceremonies. Much of the story is told from his perspective, with the details of how he managed to fool everyone front and center from the very beginning.

The mystery here is what really happened to Nicholas Barclay, who is still, as of the film's release, listed as a missing person. As the details of Bourdin's three months posing as Barclay are revealed, everyone involved in investigating the case—from FBI officials, to child protective services, to a private investigator—begins to converge on a similar conclusion, which is the focus of the film's final third. It's in this latter portion that Layton really shows the power of the re-enactments, weaving together multiple interview threads with their corresponding illustrations, cross-cutting between them in the same way that a seasoned mystery director might show the murderer on the verge of committing a new crime while the cops are in pursuit, racing against the clock to catch up.

That's the breathtaking tone of the film's final scenes, which is remarkable considering that we're talking about the particulars of a 15-year-old cold case. This kind of engagement would have been impossible without Layton's use of re-enactments. Truth, as The Imposter's story illustrates, is often stranger than fiction; but sometimes employing a little fiction is the best path to the truth.