Getting to the truth wasn’t going to come easy for director Bart Layton. He knew this even before he turned on the video camera and gave serial imposter Frédéric Bourdin a platform to do what he does best. “He is a master manipulator,” Layton told me during an interview to discuss his documentary “The Imposter.” “I was aware I was being manipulated. I mean, I introduced myself to this guy and the first thing he told me was that he is a liar. Yet, I willingly went on this journey with him.”
Layton had already seen Bourdin’s rap sheet. He had read the list of fake aliases he had used over the last 20 years to deceive people into believing he was someone else. He knew sitting face to face with the man known as “The Chameleon” would make him a vulnerable target for more deception. Still, one particular story involving Bourdin was much too fascinating for Layton not to pursue as a filmmaker.
“I got to a point in his story that just became so unusual,” Layton said. “If it was the plot to a movie it would’ve seemed farfetched. I was immediately drawn to this very human story — a story you can’t really relate to on any level.”
In “The Imposter,” Layton revisits Bourdin’s 1997 transformation into Nicholas Barclay, a 16-year-old kid from San Antonio who went missing three years prior only to resurface in Spain as Bourdin. Bourdin was able to convince Nicholas’s family he was their lost son and was welcomed with open arms despite some overlooked evidence suggesting he was not, in fact, the young boy.
“The idea that a family could mistake someone like this for their child was incredibly compelling,” Layton said. “It simply wasn’t a story about this imposter. It was a story about grief and the desperate need to believe.”
Layton’s first impression of Bourdin was multilayered. He hoped he could reflect those feelings in the film through the one-on-one interviews he conducted. “There were times when I felt quite sympathetic towards him and times when I felt completely repulsed by him,” Layton said. “I wanted the viewer to experience that — being on the receiving end of what he is like.”
In the end, Layton learned Bourdin is a man who simply can’t differentiate between fact and fiction. “I’m not sure he believes the lies he creates,” Layton said. “But I definitely think he wants to keep rewriting his story.”