Doc Talk is a bi-weekly column devoted to documentary cinema, typically featuring an essay concentrated on a currently relevant topic for discussion followed by critic picks for new theatrical and home video releases. This week’s focus is an extraordinary new film that puts a perplexing story into the hands and mouths of its dubious subjects.
If you enjoy movies that have to be worked out like puzzles, the enthralling new documentary The Imposter should be on your radar. It might already be, given all the attention the film has received since debuting at Sundance in January (I caught up with it at True/False, where I added to its praises). Websites that don’t cover a lot of nonfiction films have been championing Bart Layton's breakout feature mainly because it’s an entertaining piece of true crime that transcends the usual documentary audience with its unbelievable tale of deception and blind faith, as well as its high production value, suspenseful tone, thrilling pace and tricky employment of mostly unreliable storytellers.
The last of these intriguing elements is what I want to focus on in this column, as it’s the part of The Imposter that I continue to think about after multiple viewings. The concept of the unreliable narrator tends to be associated with fiction, and in fact I find it an interesting week for considering the validity of narrators with Oliver Stone’s Savages currently frustrating moviegoers with its increasingly devious point of view and crafty ending. I admit, also, that I often lump in the broader idea of blurred perspective with unreliable narration, even if that perspective isn’t necessarily linked to untrustworthy and morally corrupt individuals.
But documentaries are very susceptible to contamination by uncertain witnesses, whether they be talking heads whose expertise isn’t sufficient or even relative to the subject matter (a movie star speaking on climate change, for example) or they have reason to distort facts so as to make themselves look better or another person look worse. It should never be forgotten that film interviewees don’t take a legal oath of honesty before appearing and that much of the time their contribution is based in opinion or dependent on the strength of memory or contingent on some other sort of fallibility.
The Imposter immediately sets us up for trouble by introducing its main subject, con-artist Frederic Bourdin, as one of the film’s primary narrators. At first he’s pretty dependable, confessing to the crime in focus, in which the then-23-year-old European passed himself off as a missing teenager from Texas, even fooling the kid’s family for months before eventually being exposed as a fraud and put away for six years. But as his story progresses and is intertwined with testimonial interviews with the boy’s sister and mother, an FBI agent and a private detective, among others, what he’s saying should be put into doubt more and more.
It’s not that many facts are disputed by the doc’s other participants nor that his telling of events is often put in conflict against theirs -- and that actually makes the structure of the film trickier because you’re likely not even to be conscious of potential lies or to have reason for skepticism until the end, an aspect which easily relates the doc to the fiction film The Usual Suspects (which Layton admits being conscious of while making The Imposter). Bourdin might even be telling the truth throughout, but once you really consider his reputation as a serial charlatan it’s difficult to accept any of his narrative input to be true.
Of course, once you’re questioning Bourdin you might as well have doubts about everyone else in the film, some of them in particular for reasons I can’t get into without entering spoiler territory. Those who wouldn’t exactly lie so much as they might recall things incorrectly or speak without full knowledge of some part of the story aren’t any better with regards to accuracy, and the whole documentary becomes a Rashomon-esque mystery of whose perception and therefore whose subjective telling of the events is the closest to reality. Layton works in a lot of dramatization to illustrate and confuse the different viewpoints, which is obviously inspired by Errol Morris’s The Thin Blue Line, a documentary that famously features “reenactments” of a murder scene, for which multiple vocal testimonies of what occurred match up with altered versions of the dramatically acted-out visual aid.
In that classic film there is more of a contest of reliability, however, as convicted cop killer Randall Dale Adams attempts to explain his innocence while the potential true murderer, David Harris (pictured above), is also visibly in a prison uniform and stands by his account of the incident, in which he pegged Adams for the crime in court. Ultimately your determination of the truth is assisted by the actual legal ramifications and aftermath of Morris’s investigation/film, but before then The Thin Blue Line is a kind of game for viewers as they try to work out what actually happened and who is truly guilty. Most of the time, films like this don’t have the benefit of conclusive findings. I highly recommend The Staircase if you want to have a good debate on the indeterminate innocence/guilt of a documentary subject.
Other documentaries with prominent characters whose accounts are easily scrutinized include Morris’ Tabloid, Werner Herzog’s My Best Fiend, the Paradise Lost trilogy and pretty much any nonfiction crime film, especially those dealing with a possibility of wrongful conviction. But I tend to wonder about the reliability of most anybody offering their side of a story or topic, especially if they’re presented as a qualified witness or expert consultant. I’ll never forget the embarrassment of Roger Ebert following his relatively positive review of the documentary What the #$*! Do We Know? He later called the movie a hoax when readers pointed out that its interviewees were not respected authorities on quantum mechanics, as Ebert was led to believe by the filmmakers.
Since that time I’ve looked closely at “expert” talking heads as much as possible, zoning in on the titles under their names, when given, and appreciating any documentary’s website that provides more information on each individual interviewed or consulted. I also try to figure out if they were reluctant or all too happy to participate. There’s a lot that can be written on the nature of the whole talking-head thing in documentary cinema, but especially when the "heads" are expressing events as a memory or history or some other kind of unprovable statement I tend to see them as simply verbal reenactment. Of course, as we see in films like The Thin Blue Line and now The Imposter, visual forms of reenactment or dramatization should also never be taken as the truth.
What good is a documentary if you can’t trust what you hear or what you see? Well, you can have a kind of trust in them even if you don’t trust that they represent the objective truth. Layton believes, as do many of us, that no documentary can be so objective anyway. And I think it’s these films that don’t pretend to tell the straight and narrow story that are also more real and more fun by presenting the audience with a genuine depiction of life’s multitude of viewpoints and realities, as well as the appreciated challenge of leaving us think about the story further on our own. Maybe that means we sometimes end up walking away from the puzzle with pieces still missing, but even with those scattered gaps we will no doubt see a big picture.
I shouldn’t have to stress that The Imposter is my theatrical pick this week. It’s actually one of my top five picks of the year so far. In my dispatch from True/False I recognized the common responses of it being “the best kind of evidence of the ‘truth is stranger than fiction’ idea” and called it “highly engaging and suspenseful” while also noting that it’s primarily recommended “so long as you have a great appreciation for the manipulative entertainment possibilities of nonfiction cinema.” The film opens this Friday in NYC with other major cities to follow in August.
Fitting with this column’s topic, I want to spotlight another interesting doc hitting theaters this weekend: Ballplayer: Pelotero. It’s a film that Major League Baseball isn’t too happy about because it’s about the Dominican Republic’s exportation of kids to America’s ballfields and presents a scathing viewpoint on the system and alleged corruption of team owners who are able to lower a valuable player’s price tag.
But the viewpoints and allegations come from the subjects within the film, not the film itself. So the MLB shouldn’t be upset with the documentary any more than viewers should hate a historical doc about Hitler just because it includes his words. This is yet another film that requires you to think about where and from whom statements are coming from and consider the ideas and speculative accusations appropriately. Ballplayer: Pelotero, which features narration by John Leguizamo, opens this Friday in NYC.
This week’s DVD/Blu-ray pick should be Morgan Spurlock’s Comic-Con Episode IV: A Fan’s Hope, not just because the San Diego Comic-Con is happening this weekend but because I really enjoyed it and recommend it to people outside the obvious target audience (in my review from the Toronto International Film Festival I wrote, “ I guarantee if you’re human you’ll get it.”). But other than the limited edition packs that include action figures of Spurlock, Joss Whedon, Stan Lee and Harry Knowles, I’m confused about whether the film is available yet by itself.
So I’ll instead go with American Masters’ conventional yet impeccably crafted Johnny Carson: King of Late Night. Even though I’d seen it in full before, the other day the whole family and I were entrancingly drawn into a PBS re-airing at the halfway point. You should start from the beginning, but it’s no matter where you begin you’ll find it’s an inescapable biography of an icon and legend -- not just of late night television but of 20th century Americana. The film is available on DVD and Blu-ray as of next Tuesday, July 17.
I'll be back with another Doc Talk column in two weeks. Until then you can follow me on Twitter @thefilmcynic and at the DOC Channel Blog.