At TheWrap screening series, documentary filmmaker Bart Layton describes the difficulty of achieving objectivity when all have their own version of the truth
If a documentarian's main responsibility is to present his audience with the clear, objective truth about his subject, director Bart Layton certainly had his work cut out for him while making "The Imposter."
With "The Imposter" (currently on the short list of Oscar contenders in the Best Documentary Feature category), Layton tells the tale of French conman Frédéric Bourdin, who stole the identity of missing San Antonio, Texas, teenager Nicholas Barclay — and, incredibly, was met with open arms by Barclay's immediate family, despite looking and sounding nothing like the boy who had been missing for three years.
But the story also explores how the Barclay family, out of hope or possibly other nefarious reasons, deluded themselves into believing that the stranger living among them was their relative.
Everyone, it seems from the film, has their own customized take on reality. Throw in a lingering allegation that the boy's parents might actually have been responsible for his disappearance in 1994 when he was 13, and Layton had a lot of potential truths to sort through.
"Making the documentary was quite a bewildering experience at times," Layton revealed during a question-and-answer session following TheWrap's screening of the film at the Landmark Theatre in Los Angeles on Thursday night. "Literally, I would go into one interview one day and come away convinced that I understood what had happened. And the next day, we'd interview someone from a different side of the story and come away from that interview equally convinced of a diametrically opposite conclusion. I really wanted to structure the film to reflect that."
In the end, "The Imposter" leaves many questions — particularly the fate of the still-missing Barclay — open-ended, and instead delivers a fascinating exploration of deception on Bourdin's part and self-deception on the part of Barclay's family. As Layton explained to the session's moderator, TheWrap's editor-in-chief Sharon Waxman, he first learned of the story via a magazine article and became intrigued by the levels of deceit, self-imposed and otherwise, that the tale offered.
"For me there were two big questions," Layton noted of the deception. "One was, 'What kind of human being would be capable of doing something like that?' But then for a lie to be effective there have to be two sides. I was equally fascinated by what kind of family would be capable of falling victim to it."
In exploring those quandaries, Layton employs a mixture of interviews and re-reenactments that, fittingly enough, sometimes blur the distinction between documentary and scripted product — particularly since the story, on the face of it, seems so implausible. While Layton asserted that the interviews are genuine, he did note that his approach has occasionally led to confusion among viewers.
"We had a screening at Sundance, and a gentleman put up his hand and said, 'I'm interested to know if this is based on a true story,'" Layton noted.
Layton also draws a stunning amount of candor from Bourdin and Barclay's family. Bourdin lays out his deceits in a shockingly matter-of-fact manner, and the family unabashedly describes how they were duped by the almost impressively manipulative Bourdin. It was easy to get Bourdin to spill, Layton said, because "he's not a shy individual." The family, he suggests, was driven by a desire to set the record — at least as they saw it, in a story where seemingly everyone has their own preferred version of the truth — straight.
"I think their reasons for wanting to be involved with it were that, as negatively as they can perhaps be seen in this film, there were things written about them in the media — in The New Yorker, for example — that painted them in an infinitely more negative light," Layton said. "And also they really didn't give them the opportunity to tell their side of the story. I think when we spoke to them initially, they were sort of torn — they wanted to tell their side of the story, but also they'd had these rather negative experiences with the media."
In the end, Layton says, the family has agreed that "The Imposter" is "a very fair and accurate representation of their experience and their side of the story."
Bourdin, on the other hand, has been more contentious. While Bourdin has also admitted that the film is "a very honest representation of what he had said," according to Layton, the conman and the filmmaker have had a stony relationship since the completion of the film, with Bourdin using his YouTube account to "broadcast vitriol" at the director.
"One of the extraordinary things that Frederic said is that he was angry about the fact that I'd made him out to be a liar," Layton said, "which is a completely amazing thing to say."