In the tradition of stranger than fiction documentaries, The Imposter reminds us just how cruel and absurd reality can be.
On June 13, 1994, 13-year-old Nicholas Barclay disappeared near his home in San Antonio, Texas. Already a juvenile delinquent, police initially believed that the troubled teen ran away. After three years, there was still no sign of Barclay and not a single clue as to what happened to him had emerged.
The new film The Imposter, currently in theaters, picks up where the story takes a bizarre turn. In October 1997 a mysterious caller provided Texas police with a startling lead. Barclay was said to be living in Spain after escaping from a brutal sex trafficking ring.
Viewers of the film will find it abundantly clear that the young man claiming to be the missing boy is a con artist. He looks nothing like Barclay and it's clear that English is not his first language. Yet Barclay's family is so determined to have their son back they remain in denial that the young man is actually a fraud.
The Imposter, is a heartbreaking portrait of an emotionally damaged family. It pays equal attention to both sides of the story, the Baraclay's and Frédéric Bourdin, who posed as the teen. The film has received critical acclaim for presenting both perspectives.
It's a story that would be scoffed at in a scripted drama, but it's that same unbelievable, stranger-than-fiction quality that makes The Imposter such an intriguing documentary, writes Christopher Bell of Indie Wire. Thrilling in a way that non-fiction films generally aren't, the filmmaker weaves a gripping tale by utilizing his subjects' conflicting perspectives...
Directed by Bart Layton, its haunting narrative recalls the tone of other puzzling documentaries that present stories so bizarre it's hard to believe they could be true.
Catfish, a 2010 documentary, is a worrying critique of society's growing reliance on social media. Marketed as the film Hitchcock never made, it focuses on a young man's Facebook relationship with a woman who does not exist.
The award winning Paradise Lost trilogy chronicles the wrongful imprisonment of the West Memphis Three, who were accused of brutally murdering three young boys in their hometown. After eighteen years behind bars, the men agreed to plead guilty in exchange for their freedom. The horrific story of their imprisonment would be difficult to believe in any other context.
The same may be said for There's Something Wrong with Aunt Diane. The film focuses on the unfathomable true story of Diane Schuler, who killed eight people, including herself, in a baffling highway accident. To this day her husband, who lost his daughter and three nieces in the crash, insists that his wife had not been drinking or taking drugs before getting behind the wheel, despite high levels of alcohol and marijuana found in her blood.
In 2010, Errol Morris brought us Tabloid, a ripped-from-the-headlines tale of a former beauty queen who allegedly kept her Mormon boyfriend prisoner. Based on the 1977 case dubbed The Manacled Mormon, the jaw-dropping documentary relies heavily on interviews with the accused abductress herself, who has become no less determinedly delusional later in her life. Just when you think you have seen it all, Tabloid delivers a bonus narrative that had theater audiences gasping in disbelief.
That same year, The Tillman Story shed light on the death of Pat Tillman during the war in Afghanistan. Initially believed to have been killed in action, director Amir Bar Lev exposes the sinister truth about his death. The handsome football player's demise was used as propaganda by the Bush administration until the brutal truth was exposed.
These films aim to understand the harsh authenticities of human behavior. They are difficult to digest and often far too evocative for some.
For Layton, The Imposter required a radical approach to storytelling.
There's an aspect where you feel like you're reading not the synopsis of a documentary but the synopsis of a bad screenplay, he told the Huffington Post. It's that much stranger than fiction that it requires a treatment that is stranger than documentary.