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Documentary seeks to unravel an incredible deception

Charles Ealy
Frédéric Bourdin impersonated a missing 13-year-old boy for years.

The new documentary "The Imposter," scheduled to open in Austin on Friday, offers a fascinating look at the weird goings-on surrounding the disappearance of 13-year-old Nicholas Barclay in San Antonio on June 13, 1994.

Three years and four months after the boy's vanishing, his Texas relatives get a call from Spain, saying that Nicholas has been found. His sister, Carey Gibson, flies to Europe to bring Nicholas home. But when she gets there, she finds a young man with olive skin, dark brown eyes and dark hair. And he speaks with a thick European accent.

The last time Gibson saw Nicholas, he had blond hair, blue eyes, light skin and no European accent.

But Gibson accepts the story, reasoning that her brother must have gone through all sorts of horrors and changes during what he has described as three years of captivity and torture. So she brings the boy back to San Antonio, and the rest of the family accepts him as Nicholas. He lives with them until March 1998.

That's when the man posing as Nicholas is actually revealed to be Frédéric Bourdin, a 23-year-old French-Algerian who has a long criminal history involving impersonations and fraud. And the revelation, which comes near the beginning of "The Imposter," suddenly takes the audience into a new kind of documentary that explores motivations, poses questions and ultimately asks people to come to their own conclusions.

Why, for instance, did Bourdin pretend to be the missing American boy? The boy's family wasn't rich, and there was little to be gained financially.

Why did his sister not doubt his story? Bourdin told Gibson that his abductors had changed the color of his eyes, but that's not scientifically possible. But then again, why would Gibson suspect that an impostor would make up such a story? To what end?

And why did the rest of the family accept Bourdin's claims to be Nicholas — until a private investigator and other authorities began to discover the truth? Some people, most notably private investigator Charlie Parker, suggest that Nicholas might have been killed, possibly by someone he knew, and that the scam by Bourdin inadvertently helped cover the killer's tracks. Parker also suggests that Nicholas' family might have something to hide.

Nicholas' relatives, meanwhile, know that questions have been raised about their conduct in the whole affair, and they vehemently defend themselves throughout the documentary, simultaneously condemning Bourdin.

All of these questions pose tricky challenges for Bart Layton, the director of "The Imposter." And he takes what some documentary purists consider to be a controversial approach to tell the story — coupling re-enacted scenes with interviews with the saga's key players.

"There were a lot of things that pointed toward a different kind of treatment, where the drama would be like a visualization," Layton says of the documentary. "You've got a handful of really good storytellers in this film, and they're telling you a story that they want you to believe. ... There are devices that are perfectly intended to make you aware of the construct, of the artifice (during re-enactments). We're not trying to pull the wool over your eyes. We're doing the opposite. We're telling you that this is subjective."

One of the best, incredibly subjective storytellers in "The Imposter," of course, is Bourdin.

Layton's interview with the professional impostor is wide-ranging, and Bourdin admits that he has been impersonating people for most of his life. "As long as I remember," he says, "I wanted to be someone else. Someone who was acceptable."

Bourdin claims he was abandoned as a child and that he has been on a long search for love and familial warmth, often impersonating children so that he could get free room and board at various European facilities for homeless youths. His attempt to turn himself into Nicholas, however, becomes one of his boldest moves, in part because he has no idea what Nicholas looks like.

Bourdin describes how he discovered the name of the missing boy and assumed his identity, and then how he panicked when he realized that the Texas teen "looked nothing like me." But Bourdin says that "something in my head decided that I could do it."

The family back in Texas certainly wasn't prepared for such a scam — or for Bourdin's particular brand of sociopathy. "I don't give a damn what other people were thinking," Bourdin says, when asked about the effects of his actions on others. "I care only about myself."

Layton and producer Dimitri Doganis, both of whom are British, say that they had little trouble in arranging interviews with Bourdin for "The Imposter."

"He's not shy," says Layton, who came to Austin with Doganis and discussed the movie with the American-Statesman during the South by Southwest Film Festival in March. Bourdin "can be cautious," Layton says, "and obviously he had a reputation — not to mention an extensive criminal record — for being less than truthful."

But they say arranging interviews with Nicholas' family was more difficult.

The family finally agreed, Doganis says, "because they thought it important to tell their account of their story in their own words."

Layton adds that negative "things had been written about them, and they hadn't had the right to reply. So they were ultimately willing to share things that they felt were important."

Layton says his filmmaking team made two trips to San Antonio and "spent a long time talking to (the family members), five or six hours each." The subjects include Nicholas' sister, Carey Gibson;Nicholas' mother, Beverly Dollarhide; Bryan Gibson, who was married to Carey Gibson at the time; and Codey Gibson, Carey Gibson's son.

Although the filmmakers give the family members plenty of time to tell their stories, it's unlikely that audiences will come to any firm conclusions — other than that Bourdin is a jerk.

"Having seen the movie, you're now in possession of the information that we're privy to," Doganis says. "We're not holding anything back. We spent two and half years debating among ourselves, switching sides, changing our minds about evidence. And we've argued it back and forth, taking different positions. Hopefully what the film does is enable the audience to go on the same journey and have the same debates that we've had."

Layton says he sees the movie as being about "the truth you want to create for yourself, or the lie that you're willing to believe. ... But I'd also like to add that we were always very aware and mindful of the fact that ... a 13-year-old boy has gone missing, and that he was loved and is missed. And that's not a small thing."

(Editor's note: Nicholas Barclay is still missing. Bourdin has returned to Europe after serving six years in prison for passport fraud and perjury. He continued his impersonations for several years in Europe, then married in 2007.)

Contact Charles Ealy at 445-3931.