How did Frenchman Frédéric Bourdin convince a Texan family he was their missing teenage son?
Director Bart Layton discusses his feature documentary The Imposter, investigating the baffling tale of 16-year-old Nicholas Barclay's disappearance
On 13 June 1994, in San Antonio, Texas, 13-year-old Nicholas Barclay went missing. His body was never recovered, and his family was forced to adjust to life without him until October 1997, when the San Antonio police received a call from Linares in Andalusia, Spain, where a boy claiming to be Nicholas had turned up at a children’s shelter. His older half-sister, Carey, flew to Spain to collect her long-lost half-brother.
This boy – who, even when cloaked in baseball cap and scarf, looked perceptibly older than Nicholas (who would have been 16) – claimed to have been trafficked to Spain and systematically abused, his brown eyes turned blue by horrific experiments. The ordeal had, it appeared, prematurely aged him and left him mentally scarred, unwilling to talk about his experiences. Even stranger, the “Nicholas” who was emotionally reunited with his family at San Antonio airport spoke with the hint of a French accent.
This reunion was not the end of the Barclay family’s ordeal, but the beginning. As The Imposter (a feature documentary about the astounding-but-true tale) reveals early on, the boy was not Nicholas, but a French fraud named Frédéric Bourdin, aged 23, who successfully conned his way into the bosom of a missing teenager’s vulnerable family and tore them apart for a second time, with what can only be described as Gothic consequences. The truth is stranger than fiction, goes the cliché. Bart Layton, 36-year-old director of The Imposter, goes one further: “Fact,” he says, “is better than fiction”.
To dust off another truism, you couldn’t make this film up. Deftly constructed from news archive, official documentation and subjective, wordless dramatic reconstruction, the film’s narrative core is the compelling testimony of its principal players: haunted mother Beverly; forthright Carey; her ex-husband Bryan and their son, Codey; brisk FBI agent Nancy Fisher; and a grizzled, dog-with-a-bone private investigator called Charlie Parker. The film is dominated, though, by an in-your-face interview with Bourdin himself, now 38 and the embodiment of the unreliable narrator. Again, without straying into spoilers, the film’s account is far from prescriptive, allowing audiences to make up their minds about what really happened.
“You spend two thirds of The Usual Suspects with no clue what’s going on, but it doesn’t bother you. In fact, you love it,” enthuses Layton, who continually returns to the subject of cinema’s propensity for “enjoyable confusion”.
Although the full details of this obscure story are in the public domain, the less prior knowledge you have, the greater the film’s impact. The Barclay family accepted the curious imposter as their son because, psychologists suggest, they needed him to be Nicholas. To fill an emotional gap? Or with a more sinister agenda?
His mother, Beverly, who uses her original married name of Dollarhide, and seems aged through heroin and methadone addiction, “didn’t seem excited” when reunited with “Nicholas”, and put him in the care of Carey in a cramped trailer. He enrolled in high school, played Nintendo and even went to church. Though Bourdin revels even now in his own deception, he confesses this was not the American dream he’d dishonestly tried to become a part of. The imposter becomes an imposition, his full backstory is finally uncovered and the film goes down darker roads.
This is London-born Layton’s first feature. After studying languages at Bristol University, he wrote to “all the companies that had ‘film’ in their name” and got a job with September Films. In 2005 he became creative director with production company Raw, which was set up in 2001 by producer Dimitri Doganis. They have made documentaries for, among others, Discovery, National Geographic and Channel 4.
He first came across Bourdin, known in France “le caméléon”, while flicking through a magazine at a friend’s place in Spain. The article he read didn’t go into detail about the Texas episode, but proved a compelling starting point. Research led Layton to a 1998 Guardian article and a formidably detailed 2008 account in The New Yorker. Raw flew Bourdin to London and Layton interviewed him on camera for two days, finding him “charming… off-putting… childlike”.
Layton used a taster reel to drum up financing and co-producer Poppy Dixon flew to Texas to secure the involvement of family, who were not in a hurry to be found after their unsympathetic portrayal in The New Yorker (Beverly’s heroin and methadone addiction were mentioned) and a fictionalised 2010 movie, The Chameleon.
Dixon and Layton persevered and finally convinced the family to tell their side of the story. “I think they felt that they hadn’t quite had that opportunity yet,” explains Layton.
The family members were shown the film (in cinemas from Friday 24 August) in January, when Layton was en route to the Sundance film festival for the movie’s premiere. “They said they were glad they’d agreed to do it… that it was an honest and fair account.”
Fair to the participants, maybe, but is it a definitive account? “I still revise my own thoughts about it,” Layton admits. “While making it, I would interview the FBI agent one day and be convinced that I understood what happened. And the next day we’d sit down with a family member, and come away with a diametrically opposite conclusion.” This ambiguity turns out to be the film’s narrative trump card – it’s anything but “one nicely wrapped-up version of the truth”.
Perhaps the last word should go to the imposter himself, Bourdin, now living a quiet life with his wife and kids in a village in the Pyrenees. He declined an offer to see the film. I ask Layton if he’s had any further contact. “He recently sent me a slightly odd email,” he reveals. “Clearly irritated by the things he’s reading about the film, he said, ‘You’ve made me out to be a liar’.”
Which, to use another cliché, is pretty rich.