A new British documentary showing at Dom Kino tells the unbelievable story of a serial imposter.
Published: November 21, 2012 (Issue # 1736)
Frederic Bourdin, a 23-year-old French-Algerian, managed to convince the world he was a missing 16-year-old schoolboy from Texas.
A serial imposter — and a hugely successful one at that — is the central character of an extraordinary new British documentary that starts screening at Dom Kino on Nov. 22.
“The Imposter” is the story of a lie that became larger than life. Lies are what makes the main character tick. The story unfolds as we learn about the disappearance of Nicholas Barclay, a carefree 13-year-old boy with blue eyes and blond hair from San Antonio, Texas. The boy went missing in 1993, and the film shows us his sudden resurface three years later in Linares, Spain. Here is when the breathtaking con begins. The man who claimed to be Barclay was Frederic Bourdin, a 23-year-old French-Algerian man of frighteningly strong manipulative skills. With deep brown eyes and a hint of dark black stubble, a heavy accent and flawed English, and at seven years older than the lost boy, he effectively convinced the boy’s relatives as well as investigators — and later on, when he appeared on national TV channels, millions of ordinary Americans — that he was indeed Barclay.
It was during a television talk show that his lie was exposed: One of the experts working on the case was watching the program and comparing the fake Barclay’s face to a photograph of the real Barclay up on the wall behind the imposter during the interview. At one point, the two faces were shown from an identical angle, and it suddenly struck the investigator that the shape of the ears was glaringly different. Amazingly, no DNA test had been carried out until the ear shapes were contrasted — a revealing testimony of the trickster’s qualifications in lying.
In his debut film, director Bart Layton interweaves documentary interviews with Bourdin and the many people that he had fooled together with reconstructions of key episodes that allowed the lie first to flourish and then to be discovered.
In one way, during the 95-minute masterpiece of cinematic suspense, Bourdin gives a priceless master class in fooling people. From a person with a proven record of 39 identity thefts, it is worth a fortune.
The film shows that sometimes, direct lying is not even necessary when dealing with people who want to be fooled, and who stubbornly stick to their illusions, come what may. Yet gaining access to Bourdin’s mental laboratory is fascinating. How could an adult in his twenties successfully pretend he was a teenager of another nationality, deceiving police, social workers, diplomats and even the relatives of the person he was imitating?
Bravado and confidence are the key to success, Bourdin tells us. Covering as much of the face as possible and not talking much, imitating being in shock and deeply traumatized is another trick. The overwhelming sympathy that such behavior is likely to evoke in others will safely muffle any suspicions they may have. When facing someone who is tangibly suffering, people’s first reaction is generally to help, to attempt to sooth their pain, whether physical or moral, and the question of whether the person’s eye color does in fact match the description of someone they claim to be is left aside.
“It did seem strange that he didn’t talk much, but it was natural considering what the poor boy had been through,” Barclay’s older sister says in an interview in the film.
Bourdin’s mythomania is a medical condition. While in prison, the chameleon-man was diagnosed with antisocial personality disorder. His rejection of himself was so overwhelming, doctors say, that to continue living he was forced to become someone else. In the film he speaks with pain and difficulty about the fact that his racist grandfather had urged his mother to have an abortion, as he was appalled by the idea of raising a half-Algerian grandson. Bourdin’s French mother said his father was a married Algerian immigrant by the name of Kaci.
“If my own relatives did not want me to be born, how on earth can I expect the world to accept me?” Bourdin wonders in an interview during the film. As a child he was teased and sometimes even abused by the other kids in the rough neighborhood in which he grew up. Even when he reached adulthood, Bourdin did not manage to put the humiliation of childhood behind him. The truth is that most of the world could not care less about the ethnic origins of his father, and in the world of adults, personality — and honesty — counts for far more than ethnicity to most people, and yet Bourdin himself does not seem to be able to recover from the fact that he was an unwanted child.
The astounding case of the Nicholas Barclay imposter ended in a six-year prison sentence for Bourdin. The list of the sociopath’s almost magical incarnations is not limited to this astounding American case.
But the escalating chain of lies, however destructive it was for Bourdin’s victims, did not ruin the life of the man whose real life story has made a perfect suspense drama. The former outcast, now aged 38, now lives in France with his wife Isabelle and their three children. The director saves this fact until the thriller’s finale, serving the audiences a paradoxically peaceful ending.