Documentary Films, Agenda Nixed ; New Breed of Directors Avoids Taking Sides for a More Provocative Effect

Article excerpt

New breed of directors avoids taking sides for a more provocative effect.

When the director Bart Layton was researching the documentary "The Imposter," he had an unsettling eureka moment. He was beginning to feel sympathy for his subject, a pathological liar who had apparently conned a family into believing that he was their missing boy.

"I was getting sucked into his story," Mr. Layton recalled. "And I wanted the audience to experience that."

The challenge would be to balance the tale told by Frederic Bourdin, the brown-eyed French-Algerian who duped many into believing that he was a blue-eyed American teenager named Nicholas Barclay, with the wrenching but perplexing narratives of Nicholas's family and the various investigators on the case.

Nicholas was 13 when he disappeared in 1994 in San Antonio, Texas. How the family, the F.B.I. and a succession of civil servants could believe that he had turned up three years later in a small town in Spain in the guise of the 23-year-old Mr. Bourdin so stretches believability that it laid the groundwork for a "Rashomon"- like retelling.

"When you have these conflicting versions of the truth, the mistake would be to make a judgment," Mr. Layton said of the saga, which was also the subject of a 2008 article by David Grann in The New Yorker. "The key was to tell all of those subjective stories."

"The Imposter," which is being released Friday, does not belong to that clear-eyed tradition of nonfiction filmmaking that exposes injustice to exonerate the innocent and condemn the guilty. Mr. Layton isn't interested in making an air-tight case or broadcasting his opinion so much as in delving into deeper meanings. As such he belongs to a line of documentarians who try to let their subjects speak for themselves, like Werner Herzog with "Into the Abyss," about three killings and the punishment that followed, or Amy Berg with "Deliver Us From Evil," about a pedophile priest.

But when the documentary's agenda isn't explicit, there is a risk that audiences can feel complicit, manipulated by filmmakers, who spend long hours, or sometimes years, developing relationships with their subjects. It's a hazard that makers of documentaries sometimes face as they set off on their path.

Mr. Herzog's films tend to contemplate big ideas. His most recent work has been "about the protocol of death," he said.

"They're not about guilt or innocence," Mr. Herzog said of "Into the Abyss" and the "On Death Row" series, which focus on men facing life imprisonment or the death penalty. Rather than tipping the scales of justice, he wanted to meditate, for instance, on what it means when a convict can't experience rain falling on him for many years.

Mr. Herzog said he wasn't motivated by the desire to provide solace to his subjects: "Everything is for the audience."

Mr. Layton took a similar approach. As his interviews progressed, Mr. Layton was bewildered, he said, by the contradictory stories told by his subjects, including the members of the Barclay family, who brought Mr. Bourdin into their home. Mr. Layton wanted audiences to feel the same way he did. "It becomes a more interesting film when you put the audience on the receiving end, rather than in an analytical position," Mr. Layton said. "People have a visceral experience."

To emphasize the manipulative skills of Mr. Bourdin, Mr. Layton framed him so that his head appears larger and he looks directly at the audience, more so than other subjects. Such positioning could raise questions in viewers' minds about Mr. Bourdin, which would be just fine by a private investigator, Charlie Parker, who became entwined in the case."If you let a guy like that talk, he'll show himself to be a monster," Mr. Parker said. "He's a scary little bastard."

To reinforce the notion that none of the characters, not even a gumshoe, is able to tell what Mr. Layton called the "perfect truth," he visualized their stories through re-creations with actors. …

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