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Director Bart Layton outlines how he stumbled onto the story of a lifetime, how complex it is and how he had to invent a new language to tell it on screen – allowing each player to tell their own version of the ‘truth’.

As a documentary filmmaker you could wait a lifetime to happen upon a story such as this. From the moment we heard about it, it sounded like something that couldn’t possibly have taken place in the real world – a French-Algerian man successfully steals the identity of a missing Texan boy and begins a new life within the boy’s family, posing as their child? If it were a work of fiction it would seem far-fetched. This sparked the urgent need to find out more – about the man capable of perpetrating such a crime and the family capable of becoming victims to it. 

"At once charming and off- putting, childlike and jaded"

When I met the imposter, Frédéric Bourdin, he was extremely compelling. At once charming and off-putting, childlike and jaded – someone who seemed to have lived his life in a fantasy he had created for himself – one that suited him better than the troubled life he was born into. He is a master story-teller and it was easy to get sucked in; wanting to believe him despite knowing he was a convicted and pathological liar, wanting to hear him tell his story in his own words – a story he seemed to have been writing and re-writing for some time.

He told me about his past, the childhood he never had and his search for an identity and I found myself wondering if what he had done was somehow understandable – “they were a family without a kid, I was a kid without a family”. But having met him, heard his thick accent, seen his olive skin, dark hair and dark brown eyes, it seemed impossible that at the age of 23 he could have convinced authorities that he was an American 16-year-old and much less, convinced a family that he was their blonde-haired, blue-eyed all-American boy. 

I wondered if perhaps the imposter was not the story, but was rather a conduit to a more interesting story about deception and self-deception and the ability of people to construct their own truths. When we began to meet some of the other characters involved in the story they also seemed to inhabit a world closer to fiction than reality: A leathery Texan Private investigator named Charlie Parker who claimed to be the first person to spot the discrepancies between the child who had disappeared and the one who had returned three and a half years later: “the ears didn’t match”. An FBI agent who had been charged with investigating the kidnapping of the boy who had been miraculously found alive thousands of miles away in Europe – only to discover that she was conducting an investigation into a work of fiction.

And then there was the family; fragmented, bereaved and still unsettled by their encounter with the man who had claimed to be their long lost loved one, who had lived as their child for nearly five months. But other details emerged – the missing boy had been troublesome, he had run away before. When he turned up on the other side of the world it seemed incredible but possible. When the sister was finally united with him, he bore the same marks as her lost brother, he knew details about her family that no-one else could possibly have known, he seemed different, yes, and bore a strange accent, “but look what he had been through – he was absolutely gonna be different”.

"their very own version of the truth"

Every person we talked to seemed to have their very own version of the truth and all of them as believable yet implausible as each other. So the big question as a filmmaker was how would I tell a story where the truth was so elusive? My solution was to try to take the audience on a journey as twisting and turning as the one we experienced in making the film – embarking on every character’s journey with them, embracing their subjective realities; a journey upon which we lurched from one version of the truth to another, from sympathy to condemnation and back again.

It was hard to hear the interviewees describe these events without feeling like they were recounting the plot to a movie and that seemed to unlock something of how I might go about telling this story. There would be no single truth – no way of “getting it right”. My thought was to make a virtue of the conflicting accounts, and to visualize them in a style as strong as the story itself. So, the film contains a good deal of very stylized sequences in which what happened in the past is visualized - the objective of which is not to create a definitive picture of the truth or to try to trick the audience into believing something is real that is not but rather to attempt to envisage the story the interviewees want to tell us. From the very first scene, I wanted to make clear in the visualization that this is not what “must” have happened but an attempt to illustrate each person’s version of what happened. To try to recreate that movie that plays in your head when someone tells you an extraordinary story.

"I hope this allows the audience to form and reform their own opinions"

The challenge as a director was how to make a documentary - which in many ways is about the elusiveness of truth – truthfully. My hope is that the film takes the viewer on not just one journey but on a series of concurrent journeys with a number of compelling characters each with their own version of the truth and their own complex reasons for constructing those truths. I hope this allows the audience to form and reform their own opinions as to what actually happened - in much the same way has we have done in the process of making the film.

Bourdin was cagey and mercurial – displaying his wit, charm and infamous story-spinning skills one minute, then cold, calculating and elusive the next. But the wide-ranging, unflinching interview affirmed that the story was, at its core, about even more than just an intriguing tale of disappearance and impersonation – it was about how people create their own version of the truth out of the things they most need to believe. 

“We shot the interviews with Frédéric long before we had funding for the film,” Layton confesses. “There was a great deal of interest in him and his story and given what an unpredictable person he could be, it seemed that if we were serious about trying to make the film, we would have to dig into our own pockets, shoot the interviews and then seek funding for the rest of the film. I showed some clips from the interview to Molly Thompson from A&E Indie Films, who was immediately intrigued and instrumental in getting the film off the ground. Film 4 and Channel 4 also came on board early on and from that point it took about a year to make.”

Published February 21, 2013

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Bart Layton


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