If your 13-year-old blonde, blue-eyed son disappeared one day and three years later, a dark-skinned, dark-eyed young man with a Spanish accent came forward, claiming to be your lost boy, would you believe him? Incredibly, that’s what happened in San Antonio, Texas, when a 23-year-old French Algerian named Frederic Bourdin convinced the family of Nicholas Barclay that he was indeed Nicholas and had been the victim of an international child trafficking ring that took him to Spain. Bourdin lived with Nicholas’s mother Beverly Dollarhide for close to six months, going to high school, hanging out with relatives, even finding a girlfriend, without raising much suspicion. How could that happen?
This amazing story, which was recounted in a terrific article in The New Yorker by David Grann last year, is the subject of the documentary “The Imposter” by British filmmaker Bart Layton. Layton uses re-enactments and extended interview footage with the central figures in the story, including Bourdin, to create a hyper true-crime mystery—“48 Hours Mystery” with better production values and less obvious manipulation.
Bourdin was well known to the police in numerous European countries as an inveterate identity thief. Slight of build with a youthful, expressive face, he often assumed the identity of lost children, who are easy to look up in the Internet age. Speaking earnestly to the camera (Layton frequently films him in closeup), Bourdin talks of his longing for a real family, of his desire to belong and to feel loved. “No one ever gave a damn about me,“ he tells the camera. He’s animated and convincing, and it is difficult not to empathize with him. But that’s what con artists do, isn’t it?
Despite his criminal history, the police and child welfare authorities in Linares, Spain didn’t doubt him when he told them that he was the American Nicholas Barclay who had been snatched off a Texas street three years earlier. Instead of checking Interpol files, they contacted his family and waited for someone to come get him. Nicholas’s much older sister flew to Spain to pick him up and although she found a young man totally different in appearance and manner from her brother, she believed his harrowing account of multiple rapes and imprisonment and, most importantly, of almost total amnesia. Of course, Nicholas was much changed. Who wouldn’t be after such an ordeal?
Layton cuts between interview footage of Nicholas’s sister, mother, uncle and other relatives to Bourdin and to a private investigator who was the first to declare that this person couldn’t possibly be Nicholas. Private eye Charlie Parker insists that the ears gave Nicholas away—you can’t change someone’s ears, according to Parker. An FBI psychologist states flatly there’s no way Nicholas could have been born in the U.S. His accent proves he’s foreign born.
To Parker’s frustration, the family doesn’t believe him and his evidence, and their adamant conviction that Bourdin was Nicholas becomes the most mysterious aspect of this story. Is their refusal an expression of their heartbreak and a desperate desire to have someone, anyone, return to their home? Or is it a sinister opportunism, a love of the spotlight, or something even worse? It seems that Nicholas wasn’t quite the vulnerable little boy he resembles in photos. He was a disobedient, street-smart kid, covered in tattoos, and his mother and older brother had histories of drug abuse.
Parker believes the worst and that makes this story even more fascinating. Layton avoids steering the viewer to one explanation or another but leaves you shaking your head at the capacity of human beings to deceive and to believe.