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Movies & TV

13th Jul 2022

10 years ago today, the most jaw-dropping documentary you’ll ever see was released

Rory Cashin

If you’ve never seen it, we really can’t recommend it enough.

2022 has seen what might well be the end-game for how documentaries are told, thanks to The Staircase. A dramatic recreation of not just the central murder mystery, but also the impact that the initial documentary had on that case – while also dramatically recreating that documentary! – it took the idea of what a documentary could be and completely turned it on its head.

This is off the huge uptick in popularity in documentaries in the last decade or so, including 2015’s Making A Murderer, 2019’s FYRE and 2020’s Tiger King, all of which popularised the genre by basically repurposing them as thrillers, comedies or a bit of both.

However, we can probably source this shift in popularity to precisely a decade ago, when on 13 July, 2012, The Imposter was released in cinemas.

For those who haven’t seen it yet, it documents the story of Nicholas Patrick Barclay, a 13-year-old boy who disappeared suddenly in Texas in 1994. Several years later, Barclay’s family receive word that Nicholas has been found in Spain. He is brought home, and despite looking and sounding completely different, the Barclay family welcome him back with open arms.

However, it is soon revealed that serial conman Frédéric Bourdin is merely pretending to be Nicholas, who has a long record of impersonating children, but he may have attempted to con the worst family possible…

The story heads off in directions that would make a fictional psychological thriller seem unbelievable, which only makes the events of this documentary all the more jaw-dropping.

Director Bart Layton used a combination of interviews with Bourdin, as well as Barclay’s family, plus archive television news footage, as well as – perhaps most importantly for this subject matter – re-enacted dramatic sequences.

Layton uses some incredibly slick narrative devices to blur the lines between regular documentaries and something that feels much closer to narrative fiction, making you constantly feel like you’re watching a twisty Hollywood thriller, instead of something that actually happened.

He would use a similar but inverted method for 2018’s American Animals, which was primarily an all-star dramatic recreation of a high-profile robbery (with a cast including Barry Keoghan, Evan Peters and Blake Jenner), but this went too far the other way on the scale, feeling too much like an actual movie, to the point where you basically forgot it was based on real life.

Layton would have a hand in the return to the originally great ratio of reality-vs-fiction, when he executive-produced this year’s The Tinder Swindler, which remains the best original content that Netflix has put out in some time.

There were, of course, documentaries that felt like they were telling blockbuster, populist stories – Man on Wire and Catfish immediately come to mind – but The Imposter feels like the exact point when documentaries started thrilling audiences just as well, if not better, than Hollywood could.

At the time of writing, The Imposter is available to rent on Volta, Sky Store and Apple TV.

Clip via Front Row Entertainment

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