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ReelTalk Movie Reviews
Stranger than Truth
by Donald Levit

A blog, too, about “blurred literature,” “Fiction-Non” is a Maysles Cinema series of “’hybrid films’ that cross the boundaries between fiction and non-fiction traditions.” Center attraction is Bart Layton’s Oscar-shortlisted documentary-non, The Imposter. With everything nowadays “based on a true story,” The Blair Witch Project is poster picture for fiction masquerading as fact. Actually, not necessarily as jokes, clever fakes have been around forever and even brilliantly screen-satirized in little-known Brothers of the Head.

Ben Affleck admits his Argo fine-line between what he terms the bookkeeper’s reality and the poet’s, but cinema and media arts in general have not always been so scrupulous. Beyond the printed page, the TJ Leroy farce became The Heart Is Deceitful Above All Things, and, even though allegedly in a good cause, the fakery of Forbidden Lie$ became in itself the subject and hooked the filmmaker.

Two years after unnoticed The Chameleon set the source story in Louisiana, The Imposter places it in 1994 San Antonio, Texas, where a thirteen-year-old went AWOL for more than the next three years, until turning up in Spain, traumatized after escaping from being kidnapped into sex slavery.

Around shots of the call from a Spanish payphone booth in teeming rain, the “documentary” develops through traditional genre headshot testimonials in libraries or offices or living rooms or moving vehicles, all at least at first overshadowed by twenty-something Frédéric Bourdin (credited as playing Himself). This Frenchman, it turns out, has a history of identity theft in the unusual sense of impersonating missing young people all over the world, exactly how and for what reason beyond feeling loved is not made totally clear. Initially sent to a shelter for abandoned or runaway teens, in dark unconvincing reenactment he manages to come across the account of Nicholas Barclay and, without much in the way of checkups, have his brunet self certified as the blond, blue-eyed, years-younger Texan.

Later casually and astoundingly revealed to be the married father of three, from the beginning semi-narrator/guide Bourdin thus admits that he is an imposter who cannot believe his luck and at every turn and any moment expects to be defrocked under his hoodie.

Improbably, impossibly, he is not. Spanish and U.S. officialdom (Ken Appledorn) buy into the imposture, facilitate paperwork and passport, and contact the boy’s older sister Carey Gibson and mother Beverly Dollarhide (both by Themselves), the former of whom flies over and brings him back home. There in suburbia, despite a host of major and minor details that do not jibe but are rationalized away, the taciturn “teenager” appears to be eagerly accepted by family. Their reenacted talking-head commentary is skillful -- especially given that they would know the outcome -- though suspiciously little is filmed of the returnee’s interactions, if any, with them or with classmates, friends and other peers.

Of any who might or should have been skeptical, only unrelated private investigator Charlie Parker (Himself) begins to dig around in more ways than one. Two pre-9/11 governments and Interpol have been bamboozled, and only this commonsensical good ole boy sees beyond what must have looked fishy and checks into possible reasons for the easy credibility of those involved.

Those reasons are suggested but left dangling, a hook for audiences.

The film looks like many a television crime series, and is as manipulative. With no disclaimer or separation, its method screams that this is full honest fact. Appropriating the now-accepted techniques of non-fiction, it and its ilk elicit belief from a public conditioned to accept what is printed or onscreen, to take at face value what may be zero truth, a hundred percent, or anywhere in between.

“It puzzles me,” says Oscar-winning documentarian Errol Morris, “that anyone would confuse truth with film. . . . The whole idea that you can read truth off a piece of celluloid in and of itself is a very dangerous notion.” Increasingly, we do it all the time.

(Released by Indomina Films and rated "R" by MPAA.)

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