The Imposter is a documentary about a 23-year-old French-Algerian man who successfully steals the identity of a teenage boy missing from his home in Texas for over three years.
The imposter – Frédéric Bourdin – begins a new life with the boy’s family in a poverty stricken Texas town, posing as their child. And they, despite all the clear as day evidence he is not who he says he is, welcome him into their family. It’s a barely believable story brilliantly told by London native and debut director Bart Layton (interviewed here), who has constructed a film not merely about the pursuit of truth, but what truth is, and whether it really exists at all.
How did you first come into contact with the story? I read about it in a magazine over three years ago and started looking into it, before deciding to make contact with Frédéric Bourdin. Meeting him was strange, because you’re aware of what he did, and how he’s able to concoct stories, but he’s very compelling, saying things like: “They were a family without a kid, I was a kid without a family.”
Was the structure of the film something that came naturally to you, or did you really have to shape it? I didn’t change the film in the edit – I just let it unfold as the story had unfolded for me as I looked into it. You’re always looking for an objective truth but here what I was presented with was a number of subjective versions of the truth, and each of them is believable or completely implausible. The opinions and perspectives don’t add up, but they’re all completely convincing in their own right. So the challenge for me was to take the audience on a journey that was similar – and somehow communicated – the journey I went through by looking deeply into this story. It became about embracing their subjective realities.
How did you remain impartial? By trying to give everyone equal air time despite how much access they gave me or how compliant they were. I decided it would be a mistake to try and make a judgement on what actually happened. and then set out to make the film that supports that judgement. I didn’t want to make a thesis film, because I didn’t feel that that was what the story was about. I felt the story was about this elusive truth, about how we all chose to believe what we want to believe. If I had theories about what actually happened, they were constantly changing.
This is your debut film. What have you learnt from the experience? If you set out to make a movie, it’s a very different experience and a very different set of criteria to making a documentary for TV. You’ve got to upscale everything, and you have to set out with a whole different set of priorities. You have to structure the film in a different way, and you avoid being prescriptive at all costs.
We had a lot of budgetary limitations with this, and it was a documentary and not a drama, but I wanted to make a film that would appeal to a broad audience and would want to see in the cinema. That meant learning alot about how you use space, and the demands of how an audience interacts with your film on an emotional level.
What would be your message to the Bart Layton reading about Frédéric Bourdin for the first time and setting out to make this film? Just start the process. If you think you’ve got an unusual and extraordinary story, and even if it still feels compelling after you’ve lived with it for weeks and months, then you just have to start and the rest will follow naturally. If you wait until all your ducks are lined up, then you could end up waiting for quite a long time. It’s like the old adage of a thousand mile journey begins with a single step. You’re making a bet on yourself, and once you start all you can do is ensure you don’t make a fool out of yourself. That’s a pretty powerful motivation.
The Imposter is in cinemas today.
Text: Tom Seymour