On June 13, 1994, thirteen year old Nicolas Barclay was handed a few dollars by his mother, Beverly, to buy dinner for himself later that evening. Afterwards, he left his San Antonio, Texas home to go play basketball with his friends. Several hours later, Nicholas called his house asking for a ride. His older brother Jason answered, but refused to wake their mother, who worked nights, and was getting a couple hours of sleep before her shift began. Jason told Nicholas, who was a few miles away from home, that he would have to walk. That was the last time any of his family members heard from him, until three years and four months after his disappearance, or was it?
On the rainy evening of October 7, 1997, in Linares, Spain, the police receive a phone call from a man who claims to be a tourist. He tells the officer on the phone, that he and his wife, have come across someone who appears to be a teenager. The teen is very scared, and has no identification. A few minutes later, the police arrive, and after some coaxing, they get the teen out of the phone booth he is sitting in. He acts frightened, but eventually, agrees to go with the responding officer. The teenager is in actuality Frédéric Bourdin, a twenty-three year old man, a manipulator and con-artist of French-Algerian descent.
Those two incidents set up the remainder of the compelling and fascinating documentary “The Imposter.” The critically acclaimed film premiered on January 23, 2012 at the Sundance Film Festival, where it would be nominated for the Grand Jury Prize for World Cinema – Documentary. The director, Bart Layton, would go on to win the BAFTA for Outstanding Debut by a British Writer, Director or Producer. The ninety-nine minute film is told through a series of interviews, dramatic re-enactments, and home video footage, which slowly pieces everything together for the viewer.
The real life Bourdin, who speaks throughout the documentary, admits at the start, that he always wanted to be someone else, someone who was accepted. He knew he had to convince the police that they were dealing with a teenager, and not a man his age. Once he is at the police station, they begin asking him routine questions: What is his name? Where does he live? Frédéric purposely doesn’t speak much, because he knows that by not answering, he will be taken to a children’s home, which is exactly what he wants.
The people at the home treat him in a manner which makes him feel accepted. They let Bourdin know, however, that if he doesn’t identify himself, that they are going to have no choice, but to fingerprint him, as well as take his picture. Fearing prison, he concocts a plan. He tells the social workers that he is an American teenager who ran away from home, and was subsequently abducted. He informs the staff that he is willing to contact his family, but he wants to be the one to do it. Because of the time difference between America and Spain, he asks to be left alone in the records office overnight. Unbelievably, the workers at the home, comply with his request, giving Bourdin access to all sorts of information, that he can use to further aide in his fabrication.
He begins by making a series of phone calls to major metropolitan police stations in America. He feels confident that on the phone, he can convince anyone of anything he wants to. He informs whoever he speaks to, at the various stations, that he has an American kid who has been missing for a few years, but that he doesn’t know who the teen is. The response he receives, is that sadly, because there are such a large number of missing children, they can’t help him without more specific information. One of the people he speaks to at one of the stations gives him the phone number for the Center For Missing and Exploited Children, in Arlington, Virginia. He places a call to the center, repeating the same story. Out of all the missing children, you may be asking yourself, how did he come across the name Nicholas Barclay? The woman on the phone at the center, actually gave it to him. Furthermore, she sends him a fax of a black and white photo of Nicholas. After receiving the fax, Bourdin calls the woman back, and tells her that it is indeed Nicholas, who has been found.
Beverly receives a phone call indicating that her son has been located in Spain. She calls Nicholas’s sister, Carey, who is ecstatic about the news. Carey, in turn, places a phone call to the children’s home. Little does she know she is talking to Bourdin, who pretends to be in a room with Nicholas. He lets her know in a reassuring manner, that her brother is safe now, but that he doesn’t remember much. Apparently, he had been abducted, and suffered abuse at the hands of his kidnappers, who were part of a sex slave ring. Carey thinks she is letting Nicholas, who has refused to come to the phone, know that she loves him and that she is coming to get him. All Bourdin did was hold out the receiver to the empty room. On October, 14th, she will board a plane for Spain.
Entering the documentary is FBI Special Agent Nancy B. Fisher. She informs Carey, that once Nicholas is back on American soil, she will need to conduct an interview with him immediately, to find out exactly what happened. Fisher lets the viewer know, that usually when a child has been missing for such a long length of time, they are most likely dead, or will never be found. Furthermore, she says to find a child in a foreign country, after all that time has passed, is extremely rare. Fisher sends a fax to the United States Embassy in Madrid, Spain, which contains Nicholas’s physical description, which includes three small tattoos, as well as two color photographs. The information is sent to the children’s home. When Bourdin looks at the pictures, he figures the game is up, because he looks absolutely nothing like the missing boy. Nicholas has blonde hair and blue eyes, he is dark haired with brown eyes, and although he speaks English, he speaks it with an accent.
Having already tried to run away, and having been caught a short while later, Bourdin is desperate. He figures when Carey gets there and takes one look at him, that he will be carted off to prison. He does everything he can to make himself look more like the missing Barclay child. He dyes his hair blonde, gets a girl at the children’s home, who does tattoos, to draw the same three Tattoos Nicholas has, onto his body, and tries to dress in clothing more befitting of a teenager.
Incredibly, when Carey arrives, even though she notices differences about her brother, she states emphatically to the authorities that Bourdin is Nicholas. There is still one problem facing Frédéric, the judge in the case, who has to be convinced he is the missing Barclay child, is not convinced. She insists on interviewing Carey and Nicholas separately. Bourdin’s final test, is to identify people in five photographs, he gets the first four correct, and even though he has the wrong answer for the fifth one, by that time, he has already persuaded the judge that he is Nicholas. Little did the judge know, that only a short time prior to the interview, while visiting with Nicholas, Carey had shown him all of the same pictures, and had identified the people in each of them. After the interview is concluded, Bourdin has a passport photo taken, and is documented as an American citizen. The next day, he and Carey fly to Texas. The combination of Special Agent Fisher’s strong suspicions that something is not right, and the actions she takes, combined with the questions being asked, and investigation conducted, by a private investigator, Charlie Parker, make this already interesting documentary, even more captivating. (As an aside, Bourdin is the only person in American history to have assumed the identity of a missing child.)
A viewer doesn’t need to ask how Bourdin got away with his crime. He offers up every detail of how he managed to keep his deception going for as long as he could. Some questions that a viewer might have at the conclusion of the film, are as follows: Why might Nicholas’s family be so eager to accept a person into their home, who obviously wasn’t their son and sibling? Had the grief of Nicholas’s disappearance caused them such an overwhelming amount of anguish, that no matter who Carey met in Spain, she would have said it was her brother? Do some of the family members perhaps have ulterior motives for being so accepting of the stranger? If so, why, and what are they? While the documentary was both interesting and entertaining, the sad truth is, that Nicholas Barclay, alive or dead, has twenty years later, never been found. I hope for the sake of those who truly love him, that one day, the truth of what happened to him is discovered, and closure is granted.