Bart Layton on reflecting the subjective nature of truth in 'The Imposter'
“Frédéric 's not a retiring type, as you can see,” Layton says, “but for someone who's pretty untrustworthy, he's also very untrusting. He was very circumspect about the whole thing, but at the same time he was very attracted to the idea of telling his story to an audience. He himself has said that he gets confused between attention and affection.”
Similarly cagey were the Barclays, who hadn't come out well in much of the media coverage of the story – including the aforementioned New Yorker piece – but wanted an opportunity to tell their side of things to a larger audience. “I think you could argue that they don't come out of the documentary brilliantly either,” Layton admits. “But there were things they felt they'd never had the chance to express, and they got to do so here. I was nervous about their reaction to the film, but they said it was an honest account of what they experienced and that they were ultimately glad they'd taken part.”
Layton wound up with several versions of events, and found parsing them on screen without emphasising one over the other “a difficult line to tread.” It was important to him that the film not arrive at a theoretical conclusion: “That may be frustrating for some viewers, but life isn't like a Hollywood narrative – things aren't nicely tied up. Truth can be a subjective thing in some ways. We believe what we choose to believe. A story we think is about deception is equally about self-deception.
“I had done a lot of research into the case, but that was very different from the experience of sitting opposite a person and hearing the story directly from them. You can't be prepared for that. It's an emotional experience in a way that reading an article or file is not. Our natural tendency as human beings is to believe what we are confronted with, but they can't all be correct.”
Layton found the film's dramatized sections, slickly shot and infused with a range of Hollywood genre elements, crucial in maintaining the possibility of multiple truths; where most documentary filmmaking is at pains to stress authenticity above all else, “The Imposter” quite deliberately courts fabrication. For that reason, the director is keen to avoid the word “reconstruction,” preferring to think of these sequences as interpretive.
“It's a pretty dirty word in TV, let alone in documentary cinema,” he says. “It implies forensically reconstructing a series of events that must have happened a certain way – and what we have here is a number of different subjective accounts of the events. For me, the way to depict that was to create a language for film that makes it clear that we're not telling you what happened. We're giving you interpretations, or illustrations, of the stories we've been told. The filmmaking is an extension of the storytelling: if a great storyteller tells you a great story, or even if you listen to a radio play, you're going to have a visual impression of it, a movie playing in your head. That's what I was trying to get at. It's not supposed to look like fake archive material. It's supposed to clearly convey that you're inhabiting their version of a story.”
As such, Layton is one of a growing breed of documentary filmmakers who are willing to play with conventions of form and perspective to most effectively frame his subject and engage his audience. “Of course there are lines that shouldn't be crossed, and where drama in documentary gets problematic is when the filmmaker is trying to convince the audience that they're watching something they're not: that it's reality rather than recreation. At no point were we trying to pull the wool over the audience's eyes, though” – he pauses a second, audibly smiling – “one could argue that Frédéric was.”
Layton sees the film's box office success – it's the highest-grossing documentary of the year in the UK – as indicative of wider acceptance of a new grammar in documentary filmmaking. The same goes for its shortlisting by the Academy's often conservative documentary committee, which he wasn't expecting. Noting the strength and diversity of the shortlist – he describes the competition as “daunting,” singling out “Searching for Sugar Man” as a “great crowdpleaser and a really well-made film” – he describes it as a testament to changed perceptions of what the documentary form can achieve.
“It can offer the same extraordinary, emotional experience that we demand from all cinema,” he insists. “There's no reason why fiction should have exclusive rights to drama and suspense.”