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The Tragedy of Nicholas Barclay; or, how The Imposter (2012) let its audience get manipulated

Upon the release of Conversations with a Killer: The Ted Bundy Tapes, the creators of this documentary were heavily criticised for the fact a decent portion of the story is narrated or described by Bundy himself. The complaints stemmed from concerns about Bundy’s narcissism and retouching of the facts; how could a serial killer who would do anything to escape authority be trusted to accurately recount the very events of his life that had landed him in jail?

Mr Bundy himself. He acted as his own lawyer during his trial in order to feed his narcissism and control the whole proceedings.

But this isn’t about Ted Bundy. I actually want to talk about the documentary The Imposter (2012), directed by Bart Layton, focusing on the disappearance of thirteen year old Nicholas Barclay from San Antonio, Texas, in 1994. Nicholas was never found, but in 1997, confidence trickster Frédéric Bourdin impersonated him. Bourdin was shipped by the US government from Spain to Texas and reunited with his ‘family’, although he bore little resemblance to the missing boy. Eventually his deception was discovered, and he was extradited to France, although not before he convinced a private investigator, Charlie Parker, who was working on the Barclay case, that Nicholas’s family had murdered him. The movie is primarily narrated by Bourdin himself, now much older, married, and living in France, who explains how he came to impersonate Nicholas, and contains interviews and narration by other people involved in the case, such as the private investigator, Nicholas’s family, and the federal government who were investigating the case.

Much of the documentary takes place like this, with Bourdin making direct eye contact with the audience.

Bourdin had been in legal trouble before these events for impersonating children, especially missing children, and although he spent time in prison after the Barclay incident, he actually continued impersonating youngsters well into his thirties, far beyond the point of reason, and even though he kept getting caught. He’s not been convicted of any violent crime, but I’m mostly saying this to point out that Bourdin is a pathological liar of some variety who feels some strange, innate need to keep impersonating kids even when it’s not actually beneficial to him.

Despite attempting to give the entire mystery of Nicholas’s disappearance a lack of bias towards any one solution, the movie ends up implying pretty heavily that Nicholas’s family know more than they are letting on, and that they know more about his disappearance that they have revealed. They do this by using Parker and Bourdin’s interviews to directly contradict the statements that Nicholas’s family makes, and by portraying Parker as a determined hero out to find the truth; the final shot of the movie shows Parker digging a huge hole in an attempt to unearth some clue about Nicholas’s disappearance.

The way they included this final shot really did make it feel like Parker is ‘digging for the truth’ by doggedly pursuing the angle that Nicholas was murdered.

I was sold on this, to be honest; Nicholas’s family accepted a stranger who looked nothing like Nicholas very readily, and it felt awfully suspicious they would take an obvious stranger into their home, like they were covering for something. Maybe they wanted Bourdin because acting like he was their son would take away suspicion from his disappearance. And then Nicholas’s sister said something that snapped me back to reason:

“The biggest, funniest one to me – hilarious – is that we went and picked up a complete stranger to hide the fact that that we killed Nicholas, or someone in my family killed Nicholas, when through four years that Nicholas has disappeared, we were the only ones looking for him. Why would we go pick up a stranger to hide something that didn’t need to be hidden?”

Carey Gibson

And all of a sudden I realised Bourdin had taken us all for a ride. I’m not sure if the filmmakers did this on purpose or didn’t even noticed the wool being pulled over their eyes. It’s almost funny – earlier in the documentary, Nancy Fisher, who was part of the government effort to untangle the whole Bourdin mess, said that she started pulling out all stops to find the kid once Bourdin was involved. She wanted to know what had happened. She had people interviewed, the area searched, the family investigated. But none of that had happened back when Nicholas had gone missing. This effort was being put in now that a French citizen had entered the country unlawfully, and Nicholas’s sister was right. No one really cared about the boy who had gone missing back then.

Charlie Parker, the private investigator who sided with Bourdin after Bourdin confessed to him about the deception he’d undertaken.

It’s mentioned by Fisher and others that Bourdin can make you believe anything if you get stuck alone with him. And then, in the very same documentary, Parker states that he believed Nicholas had been murdered after sitting down with Bourdin in a diner for a few hours getting the whole story. Fisher herself had let Bourdin into the country because the tale he had woven of how he had ended up in France was so realistic and so distressing when Bourdin was saying it directly to you.

Nicholas’s sister said herself that their family had barely travelled in their lives and knew little of the world outside their bubble. Sure, Bourdin’s tale of how he came to appear in Spain and look totally different from Nicholas when he disappeared was fantastic, but I don’t think it’s unfair to say that Nicholas’s family may have been in a position where they didn’t know enough about what Bourdin was saying to dispute him – and besides, they wanted their boy back.

Original footage of Bourdin in custody, dancing and singing.

What I’m trying to say here is that while I don’t know what happened to Nicholas, you don’t, either. I think it’s almost outright deceptive of The Imposter to imply so heavily that everything that Bourdin says is completely true. Bourdin is known for being a pathological liar, and for weaving fantastic tales – is it so surprising that as soon as he realised his cover as Nicholas was shot, he immediately jumped onto a story about how Nicholas’s family was involved in some big cover-up of his death? Nicholas was a troubled teen from a big city, who vanished off the face of the earth before his juvenile court appearance. He wasn’t Madelein McCann. No one was looking for him, just like his family said, and this case would never have made the news or anyone’s attention without Bourdin’s involvement.

The Imposter received strongly positive reviews upon release and no doubt brought a whole lot of shit down on Nicholas’s family. People referred to it as a ‘white-knuckle thriller’, to quote The Guardian. But … is it? Bourdin weaves the most dramatic parts of the tale, and the rest is just a miserable, mundane look at San Antonio, Texas, dressed up to look like a murder mystery. Just like Ted Bundy’s voice in Conversations with a Killer was no doubt leading the audience down the path of sympathising with him, which was what he wanted, letting Bourdin look the viewer in the eye and control the narrative so he can weave his dramatic tales is letting Bourdin have what he wants. Conversations with a Killer should have been conducted without letting the ultimate control freak Bundy take the reins even after death, and The Imposter lends far too much weight to Bourdin’s account. Without the way he delivers his personal account account, the story lacks almost all of its punch. What does that tell you about the events of this story?

I think this could have been a great documentary about how people like Bourdin manipulate the facts and twist people’s perception of them, but instead of taking that angle it just took him at face value to get the more exciting story.

According to the numbers I found online, there were 28 children that went missing in the USA in 1994 who have never been found, and Nicholas is one of them. Maybe his family was involved in his disappearance, and maybe they weren’t, and maybe Bourdin was onto something and Nicholas was abducted by a secret wing of the military. But I think The Imposter accidentally shows us two bigger failures: firstly, a willingness to take a liar at his word, even when he has so much to gain by lying like crazy, and secondly, the fact that a boy named Nicholas who was loved by his family and who vanished mysteriously wasn’t even being looked for until Bourdin unintentionally forced people to care.



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