The Imposter. Flattering to deceive?

Fauxmentary or stunning insight? Laura Brown went along to The Imposter Q&A at FACT looking for answers…

If there is one defining statement that will sum up our time I believe – and I’m sorry – that it will be this: “There are known knowns … and there are unknown unknowns”. Donald Rumsfeld’s blundering description of, among other things, terrorist threats may not have drawn plaudits for its syntax, yet as a summing up of our generation’s thirst for knowledge it was bang on.

We. Have. To. Know. Everything.

We don’t even care if the truth we’re being presented with isn’t the truth at all. As long as it is presented as such that we feel like insiders, powerful possessors of the facts. We all are truly Julian Assange.

It is this thirst for knowledge which has championed the newest burgeoning trend in cinema. The faux-mentary, the documentary – not real, not comedic, an “objective truth” with as close a relationship to the truth as Dawn of the Dead to Liverpool One on an average Saturday afternoon.

Ignore the fact that a filmmaker usually has their own bias to deal with, usually wants you to have one particular set of thoughts at the end of the film and is steering you to that final point as Fox Mulder says “we want to believe”. Documentaries are rarely cinematic yet they blaze across the screen with, at their heart, a passionate assertion that this is truth. This is the curtain tied back and a chance for you to see that truth.

There is another strand to this genre which I’m now going to become a part of. Introducing The Imposter at Hackney Picturehouse, which was beamed across 42 other Picturehouse venues, including FACT, director Bart Layton said “it’s best if you don’t know anything”.

“It’s best if you don’t know anything”

It is very easy for Layton to say this and we all play a part in his intrigue. Ignore reviews, don’t hunt for spoilers, keep the ride for where it should be; the cinema. The irony that this is a film that should be on our TV screens rather than our arthouse cinemas is not lost on me. But we all play our roles and if you don’t want to know what The Imposter is about before you see it I’m not going to ruin it for you.

It is the tale of a French man, also known as the Chameleon, who attempts to assume the identity of a missing Texan teen. You’ll go on a ride. There will be a few moments when you think “Blimey Charlie”. But you’ll be no more stirred than when you watch Dispatches or read a meaty piece in the Sunday Times News Review. Perhaps that was why the cinema is half full on a wet Sunday afternoon.

The Q and A after the screening, hosted by author Jon Ronson (The Psychopath Test, The Men Who Stare at Goats) brought together Layton and producer Dimitri Doganis as well as a special guest from the film, private investigator Charlie Parker. It began with a discussion of how you make documentary. Layton and Doganis run Raw, a production company in London. Layton first read the story you see on the big screen in a Spanish magazine. It was about The Imposter. He then read more, and more.

It is, as Layton says, almost the definition of fact being “stranger than fiction”. As you watch the tale unfold it is the interviews that take you along, that gradually untangle the web. What makes it most interesting is that as Doganis says, you are making a documentary with “a very unreliable witness … at the heart of the film”.

“It is almost the definition of fact being stranger than fiction”

Ronson, along with some of the audience, asked how they had managed to get the interviews to contribute to that revelatory aspect of the narrative. It’s about how you interview them. And Raw are clearly really good at editing. It’s by far the best thing about the film.

But if The Imposter makes you raise your eyebrows and say “how the bloody hell did you do that?” it is those around him that make you shout “and WHY the bloody hell did YOU do that?”

Layton explored the “conflicting versions of the truth” they were confronted with when they were making the film. When he first interviewed the Imposter he didn’t know what the finished film would be. He then met another equally charismatic protagonist, Charlie Parker, who takes the film in what is probably its most powerful direction.

He has an agenda, as much as anyone else does, and is the man you see right at the end of the film. It becomes his story, as much as anyone else’s even if, a little disappointingly, Layton and Doganis seemed to play him for laughs throughout the course of the film rather than take him completely seriously.

The main players, apart from the Imposter himself, each saw the film before it was screened at Sundance. Layton and Doganis said they felt it was something they had to do. Not to have their blessing as such but, I’m guessing truthfully to make sure they weren’t going to get sued. They were happy. They said they felt it was an accurate representation of them, their actions and left just the right amount of questions.

The Imposter himself, Layton says, admitted he hadn’t seen the film during a lengthy denial of it during a Youtube rant. Layton has been threatened by him; funnily enough it appears the channel, which was where Layton first contacted him and arranged the first interview, is also now the platform he is using to denounce the film that will make him infamous.

Raw has made several documentaries for US and UK TV. Their experience in the genre shows. Not only is the narrative reveal a powerful tool that does keep you enthused their use of reconstructions – although Layton has said he doesn’t like that term – and how the actors speak the words of the interviewees, lip-synching to the conversation almost, means that for an hour and a half you are truly caught up in their story.

Layton said the strength of the documentary genre is the “objective truth”. That doesn’t appear here. You know as strongly throughout the film what the filmmakers think as much as the main protagonists. There are parts that are clearly staged and re-enacted. It is the story that is strong; the idea that people can still do things that makes your jaws drop. Layton and Doganis have clearly lived and breathed this story. Bringing Charlie Parker across to the UK to do the Q and A, as well as various bit of press I’m assuming, shows their hand a little.

It’s a film dealing exactly with truth and how important it truly is to us. Yet, as with other films in the genre, you don’t leave feeling you’ve been told anything other than a really good story. It doesn’t stand back and let events play out. Instead it guides them, to some extent. You won’t find any great truth, but you’ll enjoy how it’s told.

Laura Brown

The Imposter is in cinemas from Friday 24th August

Posted on 23/08/2012 by thedoublenegative