For nearly 60 years Albert Maysles has been the face of the Direct Cinema movement, whose followers believe that non-interventionist observation is the key to documentary filmmaking. During that time, he has often enlisted the words of Sir Francis Bacon to help describe his approach to capturing the 1,001 incidental moments of human life on film. “The contemplation of things as they are,” Maysles’ mantra goes, “without substitution or imposture, without error or confusion, is in itself a nobler thing than a whole harvest of invention.”
Nobility is all well and good, but Maysles has also spent the last six decades working in relative obscurity, a cult figure growing old in an era when less-observational documentarians have become stars and made millions (think Michael Moore or Morgan Spurlock or even Werner Herzog) and “reality” television has become a multi-billion-dollar industry precisely by spurning “contemplation of things as they are.” Barring a dramatic shift in the world’s television-watching habits, Bart Layton will never starve. As the creative director of London-based production house Raw TV, Layton is the brains behind reality series that aim to stun more than to contemplate. In shows like “Locked Up Abroad,” which tells the true stories of travelers trapped in foreign prisons, and “Breakout,” in which historical prison breaks are reenacted (maybe the subjects of the first show should have watched the second before booking their tickets), Layton and his teams forgo the ideological passivity of cinema vérité in favor of modern Hollywood blockbuster techniques: Dramatic reenactments are shot with jittery handheld cameras, sliced and diced by enthusiastic editors, then played to ominous scores for maximum emotional impact. Shooting reality-based content as if it were a Jason Bourne movie, Layton ignores the observational approach of the Maysles oeuvre, imbuing true stories with “emotional impact” and “visual flair.”
Layton brings the same amped-up aesthetic to his first feature-length documentary, The Imposter, which opens this month in theaters after a run through the film festival circuit. All his signature moves are here: the noirish dramatizations, the synthesized music, the intentional blurring of the line between reality and fiction. Busily relying on a scorched-earth approach that pounds viewers into a kind of emotional submission, Layton fails to realize that, even without all the gimmicks, he’s already got the two things necessary for a truly engaging documentary: a story any fiction writer would kill for, and a protagonist/villain no fiction writer could dream up.
In 1994, 13-year-old Nicholas Barclay vanished from his neighborhood in San Antonio. The police had no leads. The boy was given up for gone, probably dead. Then, three and a half years later, the Barclay family got a phone call from authorities in southern Spain who said they had found a traumatized homeless teenager on the streets claiming to be their son. Barclay’s older sister immediately flew to Spain, where she was introduced to a man she didn’t recognize, a man with darker hair than Nicholas had, who looked far older than 16, and who spoke broken English with a thick accent. Still, she accepted this man as her missing brother and took him back to Texas, where her family—whether out of willful blindness, mass delusion, or something more sinister—welcomed what turned out to be a 23-year-old French-Algerian con man named Frederic Bourdain.
Bourdain is the kind of character actors dream about playing: a pathological liar devoid of conscience but blessed with a gift for storytelling. Seeking acceptance in a world he feels has never given it to him, he concocts a wild tale about military kidnappings and medical experiments that seems too improbable to be anything but the truth. Bourdain is incapable of telling the truth about himself and indifferent to hiding his worst sins once they’ve been found out. In a stroke of cinematic brilliance, Layton handed narration duties for The Imposter to his anti-hero, which both twists an already convoluted narrative and grants viewers access to the mind of a sociopath. When Bourdain describes his first meeting with Barclay’s sister, he says, “I washed her brain” as if he’s talking about a pair of socks.
If Layton had been wiser, he might have taken a lesson from Bourdain and approached his story with the same kind of calm confidence. Instead, by the time Bourdain’s story starts to unravel we’ve been beaten about the head with so much manufactured drama that we’ve lost sight of the horrifying banality of his behavior. A great director knows that truly terrifying movie monsters require no ominous soundtracks or camera trickery; their everydayness is their power. But Layton’s style is provocation beyond shock and substance soaked in style. He’s more interested in the drama of what could be than life as it actually is—or even as it seems.