A chat with serial imposter, Frédéric Bourdin, who assumed 500 false identities in his lifetime and became the subject of Bart Layton’s documentary film, The Imposter.
Named by the press, ‘The Chameleon’, Bourdin began false impersonations as a child and is most well-known for stealing the identity of 13 year-old missing child Nicholas Barclay, lost to a family from San Antonio, Texas. You may have seen details of this case in the recently aired film The Imposter, which took cinemas by storm and earned a whole constellation of five star reviews. The documentary was interesting; it lead its viewer subtly through an intricate maze of memories, flicking seamlessly between various raw and often beautiful fragments of interview with those involved in this strange case.
To elaborate, Nicholas Barclay, aged 13, lived in San Antonio, Texas until his disappearance in June 1994. Three years later his family were contacted by our imposter, Frédéric Bourdin, masquerading as the carer of a frightened child he identified as the long lost Barclay. Bourdin, then aged 23, prepared to become the now 16 year-old child, dying his hair blonde and relying on horrifying stories of rape, torture and strange experiments to explain his change of eye colour, accent and stature. And it worked! As Bourdin settles in to the missing schoolboy’s bedroom, immediately accepted as a son and brother by Barclay’s family, the film continues artfully on towards its disturbing twist, dramatically changing the viewer’s perspective on the case and the family’s own integrity. It is suggested by a local detective and believed by Bourdin himself that the family accepted an imposter so readily and naively into their home to mask their sinister secret: the fact that they murdered Nicholas Barclay.
Layton effectively weaves together the climactic structure of a psychological thriller and the authenticity of a documentary, forming a window into an unresolved hurricane of raw emotions and underlying horror. However, the film’s genre is difficult to decide. Most definitely a documentary but filmed in the style of a crime thriller, complete with its jaw-dropping twist. This dichotomy can certainly be said to compromise the film’s integrity at times. The Imposter sits precariously on the line between documentary and artwork; the footage of San Antonio’s scenery is often soulful and mysterious, edited in a way that aesthetically enhances the film. Bourdin acknowledges that many of his mischievous smiles or cunning glances have been cleverly placed by the producers at specific moments in the film so that his involvement in the case appears more chilling and his crime more calculated.
Having said this, the film does strive for an unbiased conclusion and definitely makes it clear that to actually believe Bourdin’s disguise says more about the family than it does the imposter.
I had the incredible opportunity to chat with Monsieur Bourdin about the film, his life and opinions, and this fascinating dialogue can be read below. The Frédéric Bourdin that I encountered appeared charming, humorous and wise.
Bonjour Mr Bourdin, how did you feel about your representation in the film The Imposter?
I was glad to be able to express myself freely, as myself. They did a good job, even though they did not do it on purpose…
When I watched it, I found you very mesmerising. Your mannerisms and expressions were full of charm. Is this sparkle a result of your newfound happiness, or have you always been a little mischievous?
I’ve always been a little mischievous, but the expressions that you see in the film were not based in reaction to the scenes that you were watching, they edited the film so that it would look like my facial expressions or mimicry were reactions to what Carey, for example, would say, when in fact it was not.
How were you feeling back in 1997 when you adopted the identity of missing child Nicholas Barclay?
I was feeling lost but at the same time I was trying to fit into that new life of mine…
To what extent were your various identities ‘false’? Did you feel like you had changed internally to become more like Nicholas Barclay or was it only an exterior change?
It was just an exterior change, I was not Nicholas and you can’t possibly become someone that you don’t know.
You strike me as a fascinating individual, who certainly isn’t lacking in an original identity – have you always known who you are inside, or has it taken some time to truly find that person?
I’ve always known who I really am; I just did not know how to be happy and loved.
When you first entered Nicholas Barclay’s home in Texas, did you feel like an imposter? How were you feeling?
I knew that I was not Nicholas Barclay and I was afraid that he would show up, today I wish he would have…
Ah, I see. So what do you think of the love and acceptance given so readily to you by Barclay’s family? Do you believe their motives were more sinister?
Yes I believe their motives to be sinister, but I was glad at the time when I really thought at the start that they really were a loving family.
The film had a very ambiguous ending, what are your thoughts on the true whereabouts of Nicholas Barclay?
Nicholas is dead and I just want him to be found so that he can be put to rest.
And why did you vow never to steal another identity, in 2005? Was this a pivotal moment in your life?
Actually, I vowed not to do it again in 2005 after I adopted a cat. I knew that I would never abandon him, I called him “Jackson” – today he still is my baby.
Out of all of your 500 identities, which one came closest to providing the love that you desired? And which one was the most painful?
Michelangelo Martini is an Italian identity which made me very much loved by others in 1995. It was also the most painful when I realised that I couldn’t stay in the shelter in Sicilia (Italy) where I was so happy…
In the film, you say you were always looking for love and acceptance from a family. What was your childhood like and why was it so deprived?
When I was young I was abused in every possible way by my family, a neighbour and later on in the children’s home in which I stayed for four years; even today my family claim that I deserved all the abuse they inflicted on me when I was a little boy…
What was prison like?
A very great experience that I shall never regret!
As you know, people (including me) frequently contact you through various forms of social media to show their support and admiration for the person you are, and wish you well in the future. Do you feel that the world finally knows the real you?
I guess the world knows me better now than before, I believe that my heart touched the heart of the people who do have one and the brain that goes with it…
A few more abstract questions (since we’re getting to know each other) – do you have a beloved piece of literature/art/music which resonates particularly with you?
I love Michael Jackson, Stephen King, Dean Koontz and every very good book. I love books, but I don’t have much time to read anymore…
What do you think happens when we die?
I believe that when we die what’s left travels, I don’t know where though, maybe one day I’ll find out, if I’m wrong I won’t.
How do you spend your days now, and do you have any hobbies?
Today, I take care of my wife and kids, I give them the love that I never had, and I watch soccer games, I love soccer. I also work as a salesman…
Is there anything you’d like to say to the people over here in England, who know the events that happened with the Barclay family in Texas only through a camera lens?
I’d like to tell them that the only important thing in life is love, if they don’t realise that, then they will never live…
And finally, Monsieur Bourdin, thank you for allowing me to ask you these questions!
You are welcome and I wish you the very best too!
Well it seems that the most defining aspect of this film, its resulting controversy and Bourdin himself, a collector of over 500 fake identities, is that the truth, like love, is far too complex to be accessed through a camera lens – it must be known, found, or felt.