I like to imagine that at some point in the last few years there was a meeting of documentary directors. I can see it held in a smoky pub (let’s not worry about how they got around the smoking ban), and in that meeting they decided that, when dealing with factual subjects, it’s ok to drip feed the information through to strengthen the narrative and it’s ok to reveal things to the audience on the same timeline as those who lived through the events even if you, the director, know the outcome already. I like to imagine that it was a fairly intense meeting with raised voices and not a few objections about authenticity and ‘the truth’ before uneasy consensus was agreed. But a few filmmakers left that night full of excitement about the possibilities of the documentary as thriller.
This technique of disclosing information from the audience until it suits the film-makers has been used with great success in the last couple of years. One notable film was Catfish, in which the director Yaniv Schulman told his own story about meeting a woman on Facebook who turned out to be not exactly who she seemed. More recently Searching for Sugar Man told the tale of Rodriguez, a semi-legendary musician who was rumoured to have died onstage. Now hot on its heels comes perhaps the most extraordinary of all these new breed of documentaries, Bart Layton’s The Imposter.
In 1994, 13 year old Nicholas Barclay disappeared from near his home in San Antonio, California. In 1997, the family received a phone call from Spain, telling them that Nicholas had been found.
And that’s really all you need to know. It’s also why I wrote a whole paragraph about an imagined meeting of documentary film-makers – because I needed to make this piece long enough to be worthwhile without giving anything about The Imposter away. It feels really important to not to give much away. Admittedly, there’s a clue to events in the title, but if you don’t know about the case, you can’t foresee the twists and turns it takes and the extraordinary insights it offers.
There’s nothing startling about the cinematography or structure of the film. In a classic documentary style it’s a mixture of interviews with relevant people, recreation of past events and the occasional piece of real content from the time – home movies, CCTV, news reports and the like. It has occasionally irritating techniques, they put effects on peoples’ voices when they are talking about phone conversations they had for example. But that’s easy to overlook. The main thing about The Imposter is the incredible story it tells and how skilfully it is told to keep you on the edge of your seat. You wouldn’t accept the absurdity of the story in fiction, but as a telling of real events (admittedly a subjective telling) it’s completely gripping from start to finish.
So my suggestion is: Don’t find out any more about The Imposter. Don’t watch the trailer below this review. Just go and see it.