The renewed interest in documentaries over the past decade has opened the doors for some truly extraordinary and unusual works, to the point where this distinct fusion of visual storytelling and journalism can now compete openly with mainstream film at the cinemas. This past year, we've seen some exciting documentaries surface, including 'Marley', 'Search for Sugarman', 'Samsara' and 'West of Memphis'. Nestled amongst them, however, is the kind of documentary we're lucky to get maybe once every few years, executed with panache, and with a story to tell so bizarre and unbelievable, no writer could have made it up.
In 1994, Texan teenager Nicholas Barclay disappeared while walking home from a basketball game. Despite extensive police searches and the best efforts of his mother and older siblings, no trace of the 13-year-old could be found. Then, in 1997, something unexpected happened - a call to the Barclay's from the FBI that a young man claiming to be Nicholas had been found... in Spain. Immediately, the family and the FBI arrange to bring Nicholas home, and the family embrace him back into their lives. What was so unusual, however, was that Nicholas was much stockier, much darker, has different coloured eyes, and a very thick French accent, and with the assistance of local private investigator Charlie Parker, the FBI began to suspect that this young man might not be Nicholas Barclay. So then who was he? And even stranger, why had the family not noticed?
WATCH: 'THE IMPOSTER'
The mystery at the heart of 'The Imposter' is a baffling one, and you could make a great thriller out of holding the reveal of who this man actually is. What director Bart Layton chooses to do, however, is something far more daring. Making his feature debut, Layton places this mysterious 'imposter' as the central figure of the film, launching straight from his deceit and allowing him to tell his story and explain his motives in his own words. It's quite a shock to the system to begin with what you imagine would be the big trick up the sleeve of the film, but it's such a bold move that it keeps you glued to the screen as we watch the events unfold with the knowledge of the lies being played out. Layton uses every tool at his disposal to construct the narrative and tension in the film, utilising the filmmaking options available to him more so than most documentaries. All the usual documentary tricks are used, including talking head interviews, dramatised reenactments and archival footage, but the manner in which these elements are played off each other is incredibly ingenious. Editor Andrew Hulme proves himself a real talent with his work in the film, keeping all the various pieces in the air until the perfect moment for everything to fall into place. The impromptu words of interviewees and the actors playing them fade and meld together in an unusual and unnerving way, only adding to the almost gothic tone of the film. To say much more would be ruining the surprise of many of the tricks used in 'The Imposter', which only add to throwing the audience even more beautifully off-balance.
The mystery at the heart of 'The Imposter' is a baffling one, and you could make a great thriller out of holding the reveal of who this man actually is.
Layton is also blessed with a tremendous cast of characters, each interviewee as distinct and memorable as the next. He has been able to assemble for the film all the key players in the case, from Nicholas' family to the criminal and legal teams on both sides of the Atlantic. But central to all this is 'Nicholas Barclay' himself, the bizarre individual at the centre of this elaborate charade. Layton spends much screen time with this individual, allowing him the time and space to recall and recreate for us his actions and motives. And as the case continues to become even stranger, he becomes the eyes through which we view another completely unexpected twist in the road, as he begins to discover he has stepped into a situation far more complicated and possibly more dangerous than he expected.
It's hard to talk about 'The Imposter' without giving too much away, but even the smallest slither of a hint about this film should be enough to make anyone want to see it. Bart Layton has created an incredibly accomplished documentary, and one that stays in your mind long after you leave the cinema. This is a tremendous piece of work, and one of the most distinct and unusual documentaries to come out in years. There's so much you just won't see coming.