Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art


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PostPosted: Sat Aug 25, 2012 7:51 pm 
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Bart Layton: The Imposter
Craig Zobel: Compliance

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ADAM O'BRIAN PORTRAYING FREDERIC BOURDIN IN THE IMPOSTER

Guilty gullibility

There are righteous documentaries that pursue a cause and seek to enlighten us, like Charles Ferguson's financial exposé Inside Job or, by intention at least, the sometimes stirring advocacy films of Michael Moore. Others pursue instead a situation, more localized, perhaps in a family, uncovering darkness and mystery, ending with a question mark. The latter description applies to Andrew Jarecki's Capturing the Friedmans, which began as a study of a party clown hired for children's birthdays and wound up with a tangled child abuse case. So also for the Barclays of San Antonio, Texas, who lost a young teenage boy, 13-year-old Nicholas, blond, blue-eyed, lively, obstreperous, a troublesome child who often ran away and one day disappeared without a trace. Then he turned up in Spain three years later, in 1997, wrapped up in hoods and scarves and talking in a hushed voice.

This older boy, it turns out, wasn't a boy at all, but Frédéric Bourdin, well into his twenties, French with an Algerian father, wanted by Interpol for serial impersonations of lost boys, most of whom he had made up, strangely, not for gain, but to be taken in at orphanages or foster care centers. It seems this behavior was inspired by various things, including skill at lying, a love of deception (the police called him "The Chameleon"), and a feeling that he had not been wanted by his young mother and never had a family.

The strange thing is that when Nicholas' older sister Carey came to get him in Spain and brought him back to San Antonio, all but one family member, a brother who may never have cared for the lost boy or knew that he could not have come back, accepted Bourdin as Nicholas. This in spite of his looking too old, having dark (if bleached) hair, brown eyes, and speaking English with a French accent.

Bourdin tells a lot of the story in the documentary. His is a tale of a terrifying deception that he never expected to get away with. He felt stuck with it, then delighted at his luck, being welcomed into a real American family, given an American passport, and allowed to go to a real American high school.

After Bourdin was found out and put in jail, he accused the family of murdering the real Nicholas. He thought their welcoming him with open arms when they would have seen through his deception was fishy, and must have been to cover up their own complicity in the boy's disappearance. The family members simply claim they were blinded by emotion, wanted to believe it was him, and thought the length of time and his tales of terrible abduction, torture and group rape would explain his being changed beyond recognition.

A late-blooming detective called Charlie Parker took up the case and had seen through Bourdin's deception because his ears were different from Nicholas'. In the film, Parker is still digging in the back yard of where the boy was last living before he disappeared -- but without success.

Bart Layton, a London TV filmmaker who assembled The Imposter, makes liberal use of reenactments, like Errol Morris, and like Morris allows the truth to be a murky blur the viewer may dope out, or not. Layton's ducumentary is meticulously constructed and absorbing, if a slightly slow watch, and is enlivened by the interviews with Nicholas' brother, sister, and mother and with Bourdin, who got in more trouble when he was released from jail after this exploit and was apprehended in another deception in 2005, but now lives in France with a wife and child. An obvious criticism is that despite the new interviews, all this information and more was already supplied in David Grann's 2008 New Yorker story "The Chameleon." Indeed Grann's account shows Bourdin to be a more interesting and talented (and strange) person than Layton's film reveals. There is a book-length biography of Bourdin by Christophe d'Antonio and that was used as a basis for the feature The Chameleon (2010), which debuted at Tribeca, directed by Jean-Paul Salomé (with names changed) and starring Marc-André Grondin, with Ellen Barkin reportedly outstanding as the missing Texas boy's mother -- the deep-voiced Beverly Dollarhide of the documentary.

Layton's The Imposter, whose producer Simon Chinn is responsible for Project Nim and the Oscar-winning Man on Wire, may leave you deeply puzzled and suspicious. Did the Barclays have dubious reasons for being so apparently gullible? But the gullibility of another recent documentary, Craig Zobel's Compliance, leaves a really creepy feeling, and its reenactments, which are all it offers, narrowly, if necessarily, skirt the delicate line between good taste and prurience. Compliance is the story of a very evil prank, which reportedly was successfully perpetrated seventy times on fast food joints in thirty states. In the one shown, which is meticulously staged by professional actors, an unseen prankster calls the joint claiming to be a policeman and says a young woman working there has been accused of stealing from a customer's purse that day. Staying on the phone, which he makes hard to trace, he directs other employees to treat the young "suspect" abusively, including a strip search and a spanking.

Obviously such behavior is wrong and it's absurd to carry it out on directions from an unseen authority. But there are many examples of people doing very wrong things because somebody presumed to be in charge tells them they should. Maybe in this case to feel the true awfulness of the thing we need to see it acted out and a New Yorker story wouldn't quite do, because Zobel's aim is to reveal dark secrets of collective behavior. Compliance is an authentically creepy film. But this is a poor, bastardized kind of drama. Be that as it may, both these films cast a keen eye on urgent moral issues. It's because documentaries can do this, rather than simply provide information, that they continue to matter.

The Imposter debuted at Sundance in January 2012 and opened in the US July 13 and the UK August 24, 2012. Compliance also debuted at Sundance several days earlier and opened in the US August 17.

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©Chris Knipp. Blog: http://chrisknipp.blogspot.com/.


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