A Story Stranger Than Fiction
irector Bart Layton has crafted an intriguing, unsettling, true-life
documentary centering around a blond haired, blue-eyed 13-year-old boy
named Nicholas Barclay who vanishes from his home in San Antonio,
Texas. Several years later, a 23-year-old man of French
Algerian decent named Frédéric Bourdin turns
up in a village in southern Spain and despite a vast contrast
in their physicality, claims that he is the missing boy. The Texas
family is overjoyed and welcomes this strange looking man as the missing
boy. What ensues is a riveting, bizarre series of revelations that will
leave you almost breathless in this spellbinding, unbelievable story.
Bart Layton and producer Dimitri Doganis
recently sat down for an exclusive interview with your reporter and
the following has been edited for content and continuity for print purposes.
Cohn: How did you find out about the story of
Nicholas Barclay and why did you think it would be an interesting documentary?
Layton: I found out about the story of Frédéric
(Bourdin) before I found out the story of Nicholas (Barclay).
I read about him (Bourdin) in a Spanish magazine. Before this
incident happened he was already quite infamous in France. He was known
as a chameleon because he had this reputation for having affected the
persona of a damaged child and travelled across Europe for the
purpose of getting into children's centers and orphanages, basically
relying on the social services of that particular country to look after
him. I was intrigued enough just by that to do a bit more research and
then found a couple of very detailed articles which talked about his
time in Texas and how he had successfully stolen the identity
of this missing boy. So really the starting point was that and trying
to understand what kind of a human being would do something like this.
Also, the other thing that I was equally intrigued by was the question
of what kind of a family might fall victim to a crime like that.
Bart Layton on Frédéric Bourdin: "Hes
got this ability to intuit what people want and what people need to
hear and uses that to his own ends." Photo: Erik
Doganis: The first person we contacted was Frédéric
and he wasn't particularly difficult to find. He's not a particularly
shy man so we were able to find him on line. We found him in France
and contacted him about doing a documentary about him initially and
about episodes in his life. I think at that point Bart hadn't
crystallized that it was going to specifically focused around the episode
having to do with Nicholas Barclay's disappearance. In very short
order, we brought him to London. Actually it was in three weeks
after making the first contact. Bart sat with him for two days
and did this incredibly exhaustive interview, which really covered pretty
much the whole of his life.
Cohn: What changed for you after your interview
Layton: I had already found out about Nicholas
and really wasn't interested in just making a film that was just a biography
of this man. I felt what this story offered was an entry point into
something that was going to be a more interesting story which is not
just about deception, but it's about self deception because clearly
there are two parties that have to be complicit in this crime and the
victims have to have some need to believe that this individual is not
their flesh and blood. Most people feel that is an incredibly difficult
thing to relate to. How could you mistake your own son who had blond
hair and blue eyes for someone who is a dark complexted French Algerian?
Of course, that, I think, is a really big part of what this story is
about - rather than it just being about him. It makes you question what
human beings are capable of in deceiving themselves if they desperately
need to believe something that is glaringly not true.
Cohn: How did you track down the family?
Layton: Well, the co-producer of the film is a young
woman called Poppi Dixon. We sent her to San Antonio to
locate the family and try to talk to them about our proposal. Really,
what we wanted to ask is whether they would be willing to tell their
side of the story in their own words. We were very clear about what
we were going to be asking and we were also clear that Frédéric
was going to be interviewed. We weren't holding anything back. Poppi
was able to find them and initially they were very hesitant because
they had taken part in a couple of media interviews before. There was
something in The New Yorker magazine and I think they felt they
hadn't come out well from that and they were circumspect that it was
going to happen again and that they might get burned again. What we
said was that there was not a hidden agenda and all we really wanted
was to hear their side of the story. I think they felt they never really
had the chance to do that.
Cohn: Did anything surprise you during the shoot?
Layton: I think because the story is, to use a cliché,
so much stranger than fiction, you really kind of don't believe that
it really did happen in that way, so when you sit down with the people
who were really involved with it, who lived with him as their son, and
for him to have actually perpetrated this unthinkable crime, is astonishing.
It's absolutely incredibly surprising and one of the things that was
most surprising was the very conflicting versions of the same event
and so you would go from one interview one day with a very clear idea
of what had happened, and then the next day you would come away with
a completely opposite conclusion, and that was very surprising. And
then the job for us was how do you make sense of all of that.
Cohn: What were one or two of the most surprising
moments for you?
Layton: Well I suppose it was incredibly surprising
to hear the sister tell the story of her journey to retrieve her brother
and then for her to describe the moment at which she found him and the
emotion of reconnecting with this brother who she hadn't seen for four
years. We know it couldn't have been her brother, yet she describes
it in such an emotional way and she's says 'I have him, he's here -
I've got him and he's okay.' It's incredibly difficult to know what
to make of that. Was it because she wanted it to be the case so badly
that she was kind of blinded by the reality?
Cohn: What about the intriguing mysterious possibility
posited by the private investigator?
Layton: As you see in the film, it's a question that's
put to them, (the family) but I think there are certain things
in the film that we would rather leave for the audience to discover.
Cohn: Your secret is safe with me. Frédéric
was so at ease on camera that I almost thought he was an actor telling
a story. Did you find him chilling?
Referring to "The Imposter" Frédéric
Bourdin, filmmaker Bart Layton wonders: "Is he a victim?
Is he a perpetrator? Or hes both?" Courtesy
Doganis: I think what you've identified is that he is
brilliant in a kind of twisted way. He's got a kind of perfect pitch
for human emotion. You know how some people who have never studied music,
can bang out a tune on a piano because they grew up in a bar where there
was a piano? He's got that. He's grown up lying and manipulating and
figuring out ways 'round institutions and bureaucracies and kind of
caring, well-meaning adults. He's got this ability to intuit what people
want and what people need to hear and uses that to his own ends. Also,
he has this way of creating a story that suits his ends out of verifiable
facts, even though those facts have nothing to do with the story.
Cohn: As you worked on the film, did your opinions
change about him or any members of the family?
Layton: We didn't spend a lot of time with him. I think
one of the interesting things is as human beings it is our natural instinct
to want to believe what you hear. If someone is telling you a compelling
story, you want to believe it and he relies on that very heavily. It
was something we wanted the audience to be able to experience directly.
When you go to this movie, he looks you in the eye and you hear him
tell the story he wants you to hear. That was something we wanted to
put the audience on the receiving end of because when you do sit with
him, to answer your question, you go through a range of different emotions.
You feel sympathetic towards him, but you also begin to wonder how much
is he doing to you, the interviewer, that he does to everyone, which
is to play on your emotions and manipulate.
Bart Layton on Frédéric
Bourdin: "Hes got this ability to intuit what people
want and what people need to hear and uses that to his own ends."
Cohn: Is he a sociopath?
Layton: I'm not qualified to answer that, but that manipulation
was something we wanted to defer to the audience.
Doganis: So the film doesn't make that decision for
you. You have to watch it and think oh my God, what do I believe. All
the questions you are asking are absolutely right but those are questions
you want the audience to have. Is he a victim? Is he a perpetrator?
Or he's both? Similar questions might be asked about the family.
Cohn: In a way, the film reminded me of a much
darker "Catch Me If You Can."
Layton: Yes, and how about "The Talented Mr. Ripley?"
Cohn: Well yes, but that character was a really
evil guy who murdered people, whereas Leonardo DiCaprio's lovable character
of Frank Abagnale Jr. was not an evil guy. He was just a super, super
brilliant guy who did not intend to deliberately hurt anyone.
Layton: And now works on the side of law and order.
PR person enters and signals the end of the interview.
Cohn: I need them for another two hours. (Laughter)
I just wanted to say congratulations. The film is brilliant and quite
Layton & Doganis: Thank you so much. You're very