The closest thing American viewers get to being engrossed in documentary filmmaking is watching reality television. It’s a sad, but true fact. Many shows on cable like “Deadliest Catch,” “Hoarders,” and “Border Wars” blur the line between those two film techniques. Sure they have some staged moments, but takes the viewer into a fascinating subject matter more so then anything on the E! Entertainment Channel. A great documentary educates and informs as well as allows one to question what you watched. And after watching “Imposter” the villains and heroes weren’t presented with clarity or sympathy. This is a rare breed of a documentary; a crime noir primed for a sensationalist network newsmagazine program captures the viewer with a bizarre premise of deception only then to unravel into something much more deceiving in itself. It would make for some great television.
For a brief synopsis of the plot: The story chronicles how Frédéric Bourdin convinced European and American investigators that he was in fact a missing Texas boy Nicholas Barclay whom vanished in 1994. He deceives many people and works out specific details to fuel his deception. Until a private investigator suspects Nicholas isn’t who he claims to be. Director Bart Layton interviews sources, re-enacts key moments and uses home-video footage to tell a complex, personal story about the family. Goosebumps were throbbing on my arms and the hairs stood up on the back of my neck watching the details emerge from this film. Out of all the documentaries I have watched, this one might compel me; even haunt me to rank it as one of the best from the year.
However, as I was watching the film, I cannot help but think a story like “The Imposter” was more appropriate for television and not a standard art house ‘issue’ documentary. This is a story about abnormal human behavior my grandparents who enjoy watching bizarre crime stories. Last Christmas, I had a stack DVD screeners of Oscar eligible documentaries I wanted to watch with my family. However, my grandmother was obsessed with watching a 20/20 murder mystery on Christmas Eve before Midnight Mass no less! And I didn’t think watching “To Hell and Back Again” would be appropriate viewing material on such a solemn time with the family. Even though I felt an issues documentary is more important, and acceptable to watch, I become engaged in a fascinating, kooky story just like anyone else.
“The Imposter” is full of numerous twists, which truly engages audiences and reality TV/sensationalist news magazine shows capture this type of drama so well. And that’s what bothered me about the content and style of “The Imposter.” Yes, it played at Sundance and South by Southwest Film Festivals where it won over audiences and achieved acclaim. Yet, it is being distributed by A&E so expect a TV debut soon. This studio did distribute the documentary “American Teen” which felt like a reality TV series. For a riveting and captivating documentary feature, I couldn’t take my eyes off it. I felt almost guilty of peeking into someone else’s lives, the insecurity of a family, and the aftermath of a ‘not-so-outrageous’ accusation revealed in the third act. The best documentaries don’t have to be about serious political issues, but rather contain a gripping story and intriguing style in a way that educates, entertains, and engages viewers. Whether meant for television or in an art house cinema, “The Imposter” does all three flawlessly. It deserves an audience willing to explore the possibilities.