x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 July 2017

The Imposter: how to steal a life

Some true stories are so unbelievable that if a filmmaker tried to pass them off as fiction, they couldn't. But The Imposter, by Bart Layton, happens to be true.

The private investigator Charlie Parker. Courtesy Front Row
The private investigator Charlie Parker. Courtesy Front Row

The Imposter, made by the British director Bart Layton, reveals the essential details early: Nicholas Barclay, a boy of 13, vanishes from his Texas home and, three years later, on the other side of the Atlantic, a French-Algerian man of 23 persuades the boy’s family and the authorities he is the missing teenager. Quite simply, it is an unbelievable story, but it happens to be true.

To explain how he ended up 8,000 kilometres away in Andalusia, he made up a tale of escaping from a child prostitution ring. To perfect his act, he pumped Barclay’s grandmother for information in a 94-minute call. And he kept up the pretence for five months once accepted into the family home.

It is an astonishing story of how the understandable human desire for a happy solution to a heartwrenching mystery combined with a clever young fraud’s talent for impersonation to fool a lot of people.

But if the linguistic, physical and cultural distinctions between Barclay and Frederic Bourdin failed to arouse suspicion among Barclay’s relatives, surely they at least forced eyebrows to be raised among the US officials charged with considering the case. They did not.

One man, however, was unconvinced by this young man with brown eyes – Nicholas’s were blue-grey – and a French accent. For Charlie Parker, a wizened private investigator in Nicholas’s home city of San Antonio, the Bourdin story did not ring true.

Sitting in on a television interview, he focused on the impostor’s ears, applying a Scotland Yard test based on “the only part of the body that doesn’t age”. Comparison, using Photoshop, told him Bourdin was a fraud.

Parker suspects Barclay is not just missing but dead, killed by a family member. UAE residents can now learn more about those suspicions; the film has just been released on DVD and Front Row, the Dubai company with Middle East rights, says it will also be available soon in other GCC countries and Lebanon.

Bourdin eventually confessed to being an impostor. He served a six-year sentence for perjury and passport fraud, both committed in the process of asserting his false identity, before being sent back to France.

Layton made the film in mostly documentary format and it is an awkward but compelling viewing experience. Parker plays himself. At 72, he still runs Find Anyone Investigations and keeps a keen eye on developments in the search for the truth about Barclay. Cinemagoers who telephone the filmmakers claiming to have new information are passed on to him and he believes one such caller could yet produce the vital clue.

From his office in Texas, he answers the two questions that seem to sum up everything about this extraordinary case: does he know what really happened to Nicholas in 1994 and will this ever be established in the courts?

“I am not positive, not 100 per cent,” he replies. “But the circumstantial evidence is pretty overwhelming. I am sure something happened. But what I suspect that was, I cannot prove.”

And the chances of proving what he so strongly believes? “It could happen, if only we could find the body and there is evidence, such as DNA that can last for years and years. I remain hopeful.”

Questions persist about how Bourdin pulled off the identity theft, especially given the differences of appearance. “Really, Nicholas was a true changeling,” says Parker. “One day he could look like a hoodlum from a gang, the next day a rock star.”

As for Bourdin, the author of an estimated 500 impersonations, he initially resumed his life as a serial impostor. He purported to be a teenager orphaned by the 2004 Madrid bombings. In the French Alps, he assumed the identity of a boy missing since 1996.

Finally, in 2005, he vowed never again to pass himself off as someone else. He is now 38, married with three children and seems to frequent Twitter. But as one woman responding to the tweets asked: “What if it’s not really him – an imposter of an imposter?”