In 1994, Nicholas Barclay, a 13-year-old Texas boy vanishes from his home without a trace. Three and a half years later, staggering news arrives: the boy has been found, far from home in Spain, disclosing horrific stories of kidnap and torture. His ecstatic family accept him without question, and he integrates back into their lives. Yet why do the family not seem to notice the glaring physical and personality differences between Nicholas and the person who claims to be him? And if this person who has arrived in Texas isn’t Nicholas, then who is he?
How on Earth could a French/Algerian expert con man persuade a Texan family that he was their missing teenage son/brother, who had disappeared without trace three years earlier?
If this were a fictional tale, the plot would be hard to swallow
The Imposter, English director Bart Layton’s disturbing docudrama, offers no clear-cut answers to the bizarre case of Nicholas Barclay, who was 13 when he vanished after a game of basketball in 1994.
One day in 1997, Frédéric Bourdin was discovered by tourists in the town of Linares in Spain and taken to a youth shelter where he later claimed to be the missing boy. The resourceful Bourdin had phoned the National Centre for Missing and Exploited Children in Virginia to get a list of missing kids, where he spotted Nick, and asked for a photo.
The boy’s older sister Carey Gibson flew to Spain and brought him back to Texas. The film suggests Carey and her mother Beverly Dollarhide wanted to believe Bourdin was Nicholas because the only alternative was to accept the boy was dead.
But how did Bourdin convince the Spanish police, a judge, U.S. Embassy officials in Madrid and an FBI agent in San Antonio that he was Nicholas? Incompetence and gullibility are the only rational explanations.
Even to the casual observer, the imposter looked nothing like Nick, who had fair hair and blue eyes. Bourdin was 23, with brown eyes, dark hair which he’d dyed blonde, swarthy complexion and a noticeable French accent. Spotting tattoos on a photo of Nick, he had asked a friend at the shelter to ink his skin with similar tattoos.
The family attributed these startling changes in appearance and his non-existent memory of people and places he should have known to the trauma he claimed to have suffered, concocting a cock-and-bull story about being abducted by military personnel and flown to Europe where he was tortured and sexually abused.
If it were not for a Texas private detective, burly, silver-haired Charlie Parker, one wonders how long Bourdin might have maintained the scam. Parker was hired by the producers of a U.S. current affairs show to find the boy for an interview, setting off an investigation which quickly revealed Bourdin was a fraud.
If this were a fictional tale, the plot would be hard to swallow. So you may well watch in amazement as Bourdin talks to the camera, explaining his motivation (he wanted a better life in the U.S. than his footloose existence in Europe), boasting about his elaborate pretences and trying to evoke sympathy for his troubled childhood.
All without a shred of remorse or an apology for the angst he caused the Barclays. 'For a long time I wanted to be someone else, someone who was acceptable. I learned to be convincing," he says. Bourdin comes across as a shrewd, calculating, self-obsessed and cold-hearted man, but he’s not without charm. 'I washed her brain," he says, cruelly referring to the way he manipulated Carey.
Carey is an intelligent, articulate and, in other respects, a perceptive woman who clearly feels aggrieved at being duped. The gruff, gravel-voiced Beverly is a less sympathetic figure, and quite defensive when suspicions are raised about what might have happened to her son.
The meticulously researched film has the tone, sensibilities and handsome production values of a psychological thriller, complete with a haunting score by Anne Nikitin and first class cinematography by Erik Alexander Wilson, who shot the films Tyrannosaur and Submarine.
Directing his first feature, Layton shows plenty of flair, with clever techniques such as dubbing Bourdin’s voice over the actor who plays him in re-enactments, and bursts of screen static, heightening the dramatic effect. He proves to be a great storyteller, skilfully combining the interviews, grainy video footage of Nicholas, and the reconstructions.
The film goes some way towards solving one mystery, how Bourdin pulled off a giant con, but it leaves unanswered the other puzzle: Where’s Nick?
Watch 'The Imposter'
Friday 13 August, 3:15am on SBS World Movies (streaming after at SBS On Demand)
Genre: Documentary, Mystery
Director: Bart Layton