WHEN the director Bart Layton was researching the
documentary “The Imposter,”
he had an unsettling eureka
moment. He was beginning to feel sympathy for his subject,
a pathological liar who had apparently conned a family into
he was their missing boy.
“I was getting sucked into his story,” Mr. Layton recalled.
“And I wanted the audience to experience that.”
The challenge would be to balance the tale told by Frédéric
Bourdin, the brown-eyed French-Algerian who duped many
into believing that he was a blue-eyed American teenager
named Nicholas Barclay, with the wrenching but perplexing
narratives of Nicholas’s family and the various investigators
on the case.
Nicholas was 13 when he disappeared in 1994 in San
Antonio. How the family, the F.B.I. and a succession of civil
servants could believe that Nicholas had turned up three
years later in a small town in Spain in the guise of the 23-
year-old Bourdin so stretches believability that it laid the
groundwork for a “Rashomon”-like retelling.
“When you have these conflicting versions of the truth, the
mistake would be to make a judgment,” Mr. Layton said of
the saga, which was also the subject of a 2008 article by
David Grann in The New Yorker. “The key was to tell all of
those subjective stories.”
“The Imposter,” which is being released on Friday, does not
belong to that clear-eyed tradition of nonfiction filmmaking
that exposes injustice to exonerate the innocent and
condemn the guilty. Mr. Layton isn’t interested in making an
air-tight case or broadcasting his opinion so much as in
delving into deeper meanings. As such he belongs to a line of
documentarians who try to let their subjects speak for
themselves, like Werner Herzog with “Into the Abyss,” about
three killings and the punishment that followed, or Amy Berg
with “Deliver Us From Evil,” about a pedophile priest. But
when the documentary’s agenda isn’t explicit, there is a risk
that audiences can feel complicit, subtly manipulated by
filmmakers, who spend long hours, or sometimes years,
developing relationships with their subjects. It’s a hazard
that makers of documentaries sometimes face as they set off
on their path.
Mr. Herzog’s films tend to contemplate big ideas. His most
recent work has been “about the protocol of death,” he said.
“They’re not about guilt or innocence,” Mr. Herzog said of
“Into the Abyss” and the “On Death Row” series, which focus
on men facing life imprisonment or the death penalty.
Rather than tipping the scales of justice, he wanted to
meditate, for instance, on what it means when a convict can’t
experience rain falling on him for many years.
Mr. Herzog said he wasn’t motivated by the desire to provide
solace to his subjects: “Everything is for the audience.”
Mr. Layton took a similar approach. As his interviews
progressed, Mr. Layton was bewildered, he said, by the
contradictory stories told by his subjects, including the
members of the Barclay family, who brought Mr. Bourdin
into their home. Mr. Layton wanted audiences to feel the
same way he did. “It becomes a more interesting film when
you put the audience on the receiving end, rather than in an
analytical position,” Mr. Layton said. “People have a visceral
To emphasize the manipulative skills of Mr. Bourdin, Mr.
Layton framed him so that his head appears larger and he
looks directly at the audience, more so than other subjects.
Such positioning could raise questions in viewers’ minds
about Mr. Bourdin, which would be just fine by a private
investigator, Charlie Parker, who became entwined in the
“If you let a guy like that talk, he’ll show himself to be a
monster,” Mr. Parker said. “He’s a scary little bastard.”
To reinforce the notion that none of the characters, not even
a gumshoe, is able to tell what Mr. Layton called the “perfect
truth,” he visualized their stories through re-creations with
actors. Those scenes begin with over-the-shoulder shots to
indicate that the film is tracing that person’s memory. “I
wanted to show you that you are inside someone’s head,” Mr.
He sought balance through the editing, deciding which
material to include or exclude. At one point the filmmakers,
including the executive producers John Battsek and Simon
Chinn, disagreed over footage that showed the extent of Mr.
Bourdin’s pathology. “There was a debate within the inner
circle in the editing room about how the audience was left to
feel about Frédéric,” said Mr. Battsek, who voted against the
footage. “Neither Simon Chinn nor I felt that the point
needed to be driven home any more.”
Mr. Layton chose to include the sequence. “It was the truth
of the matter,” he said. “It happened.”
Mr. Battsek, who has produced dozens of documentaries,
explained that his role is often to give directors a different
perspective on subjects with whom they have developed
“I am several steps removed, and they can definitely lose
themselves,” Mr. Battsek said. He recalled working with the
director Amir Bar-Lev on “The Tillman Story,” about the
killing of the American soldier and former football player Pat
Tillman. The filmmaker became so close with Mr. Tillman’s
family that “I think Amir would say that he was glad that I
was there to pull him back,” Mr. Battsek said.
Mr. Bar-Lev, who is working on another documentary with
Mr. Battsek, said: “A producer’s fresh eyes are invaluable for
me, but I don’t think I had Stockholm syndrome on that
film.” He added: “I try and have my films represent my
opinion but leave room for the audience to disagree. You can
see that I am incredibly sympathetic to the family, but I
deliberately include their human complexities and
It didn’t take an inner circle to convince the director Allen
Hughes that he shouldn’t have laughed audibly during an
interview for the documentary “American Pimp,” which he
directed with his brother, Albert.
In that film a Hollywood pimp brags about giving women
who skateboard on the streets of Los Angeles some
“direction” by turning them into prostitutes, and Mr. Hughes
can be heard guffawing in the background. “That guy had me
in stitches, even though what he was saying was tragic,” Mr.
Hughes said, adding that he spent thousands of dollars in the
editing room to erase the sound because he didn’t want to
sway his audience by suggesting how he was feeling in that
“When you are working on a film, you must be in love with
that subject,” he said. “There is an umbilical connection.”
The bond between director and subject can be especially
complicated when a filmmaker won’t have a film unless that
subject acts in a particular way, as in the case of the
documentary “The Bridge,” for which Eric Steel trained
cameras on the Golden Gate Bridge for all of 2004, in order
to tape the suicides that frequently take place there.
“It was a year of deep, dark emotions,” said Mr. Steel, who
would call emergency assistance if he saw someone display
signs of wanting to jump.
Mr. Steel, who had witnessed people jumping from the
World Trade Center immediately after the 2001 attacks
there, said he was partly moved to make “The Bridge” after
experiencing the deaths of two siblings, one from cancer and
the other in a car accident. “I was overcome by grief, but I
never wanted to end my life,” Mr. Steel said. “I wondered
why my life was bearable to me and someone else’s wasn’t.”
Mr. Hughes conceded that he and his brother had a
particularly nuanced relationship with the subject matter of
“American Pimp.” After the release of the 1999 film they said
publicly that their estranged father had once been a pimp.
Mr. Hughes said he and his brother made the documentary
as a “demented” way to explore issues related to their
Mr. Hughes made no claim of objectivity. “Once you start
using music, or as soon as you make a cut, you are being
subjective,” he said.
Mr. Layton said he agreed: “A truly objective film is not
possible unless you are using a CCTV camera that is
As for presenting the different sides to his story, Mr. Layton
said that early screenings of “The Imposter” had provoked
such consistently conflicting opinions that it suggested he
“got the balance about right.”
Ultimately neither Mr. Layton nor the investigators know
what happened to Nicholas. “But, no disrespect to the family,
this film is not about Nicholas Barclay,” Mr. Layton said. “It’s
about deception. It’s also about self-deception.”