The Imposter is a WTF film, one of those truth is stranger than fiction and you have to see this to believe it, movie. For those who have seen The Changeling with Angela Jolie, you’ve already experienced a story that has some of the aspects of this one, though this one is even more WTF than that one, because the motivations of the characters involved are so much clearer in Jolie’s movie than the one here.
In Spain, a teenager claiming to be a sixteen year old American taken from his home three years earlier is discovered by the police. He eventually identifies himself as Nicholas, who disappeared from the San Antonio home of mother Beverly Dollarhide a few years earlier. He’s returned to his home and everyone welcomes him with open arms as if he were the prodigal. The problem is that he wasn’t Nicholas; and not just wasn’t, but ludicrously wasn’t. He wasn’t sixteen, he was twenty-three. He didn’t have the same color eyes. He wasn’t even Spanish. His real name is Frederic Bourdin, a French citizen who had already spent much of his life pretending to be someone else. How he got away with this and why people were convinced and/or allowed him to get away with it makes up the bulk of the movie.
In essence Frederic is a sociopath, though not the violent psychopath kind that one usually sees in movies and police procedurals (most sociopaths are relatively harmless and, after all, without them, we probably wouldn’t have any actors or politicians). But if he wasn’t who he claimed to be, then why did people believe it and, perhaps more importantly, what happened to the real Nathanial (to this date, he has never been heard from)? And as Nathanial’s stories became more and more unbelievable and ridiculous, why did everyone just double down and believe him even more?
This documentary is directed by Bart Layton in the Errol Morris style: close ups against grey backgrounds or in natural surroundings (minus the unflattering light Morris often uses) as well as recreated scenes, resulting in some of the most striking, if not at times eerie, moments where the actor playing Frederic as the “sixteen” year old mouths the words and body language of the older Frederic as he talks to the camera.
The film is a fascinating study of human nature, not because of the questions it answers, but because of the questions it doesn’t. Layton creates almost as much tensions and suspense here as in any Hollywood studio film about super heroes. You watch it and just keep going, WTF, WTF.
I don’t believe artists in the U.S. realize just how terrified the government is of artists who have something to say. In the new documentary by Alison Klayman, Ai Wei Wei: Never Sorry, the title character, the internationally renown Chinese artist and provocateur, made his reputation not just by creating beautiful sculptures and art installations, but by throwing it and his life in the government’s face.
Ai Wei Wei, for most of his adult life, managed to create his art with little interference from the government (unlike friend and poet Liu Xiaobo, who won the Nobel Peace Prize while imprisoned for speaking out against the authorities). Part of the opening up of the Chinese culture in the 1970’s, Ai Wei Wei didn’t let that stop him from taking J’accuse stances against those in control. Perhaps his most moving was a response to the 2008 Sichuan earthquake. A number of very young school girls died, but the government refused to release a list of names or even a death toll. Ai Wei Wei sent a number of volunteers to the surrounding areas to talk to the families and gather the names themselves and then he listed them on his blog. When his blog was shut down, he took to Twitter.
Ai Wei Wei finally proved too much for the government (especially over his constant legal pursuit against the police over being struck by one of them in an angry confrontation—an attack that led to an operation when he started having constant headaches). He was picked up and disappeared for a number of months. When released, the man who once had a Santa Clause waistline, was now holding up his pants with his hands, an uncertainty in his face at being forbidden to speak to the media, instructions he followed for awhile, but then there he was, giving an interview to the BBC.
The movie, uplifting and inspiring, is a must see. It’s an amazing character of a man who is a remarkably still and serene point in an often ridiculously turning world, while at the same time, bristles as any son does when an overbearing mother comes to visit. The more I watched it, the more all I could think was that I just don’t believe artists in the U.S. realize just how terrified the government is of artists who have something to say.