HotDocs 2012 Review: THE IMPOSTER May Be the RASHOMON of (Post)Modern Documentaries

Jason Gorber, Featured Critic
Everyone lies.

It's a simple statement, but few take it to heart. Now, of course, I'm not lying, I'm telling you my story, my response to this film. But I may be lying to myself, and then to you, convincing myself I loved this film more than I really did just to stand out from or fit in to a crowd, to fill a hole in my life. Maybe I'm manipulating my own story in the telling, rethinking responses after the fact in order to provide testimony about what I believe happened. Facts are shaped, opinions are slippery, yet for me, right now, let me convince you that The Imposter may well already be this year's best documentary.

I sat down to watch The Imposter figuring I'd get watered-down Errol Morris, some crime docu-drama about small town hicks from Texas that had a blue-eyed, blonde haired son disappear without a trace in the mid-90s, only to have him return a few years later as a brown haired, brown eyed guy found in Spain. Midway through the film, I realized I was getting a sophisticated retelling of this tale from multiple sides, beautifully shot, compelling presented. By the end, I knew I had seen something extraordinary, an epistemologically sophisticated, self-aware film that lays bare the mechanisms of manipulation, leaving the attuned audience fully complicit as our loyalties shift with each pass at the narrative.

Imposter owes as much to the sublime F for Fake as it does to Capturing the Friedmans or Thin Blue Line. Heck, the filmmakers even cited the likes of Gus Van Sant's Elephant as a film they drew inspiration from, as well as Chandler-style noir films. Parts play almost like a Hal Ashby or Wes Anderson film, complete with use of Bowie and Cat Stevens to score some of the recreations.

These vignettes will be the most controversial element for those who strictly like their docs to have the patina of verité. Unlike so-called "objective" filmmaking, the makers of The Imposter do something I think quite extraordinary in tying the testimony of the narration directly to the actors portraying the central characters, often cutting between and having the actors mouth the words being spoken. Voices are equalized mid phrase to sound like phone conversations, the manipulation of the documentary form itself is laid bare as competing versions of the narrative interweave throughout the work.

As compelling as our lead character and the family he joined are, the character that seems even more larger than life is the tireless private investigator (hired back-in-the-day by the execrable Hard Copy TV-show, no less) whose crackpot mannerisms belie the fact that sometimes the paranoid can be onto some kind of truth that has for many reasons eluded those predisposed to accept what they're expecting to see. He's but one element of this story that if it wasn't based on a set of actual events it'd be seen as completely preposterous.

The works deftly shifts its tone throughout, the filmmakers wisely leaving enough space within the structure to allow an audience to draw competing conclusions multiple times throughout the film. As it ends, we're left with a kind of anti-catharsis, knowing certain things about the superficial facts of the case, but next to nothing regarding the core motivations for the actors of the story, nor which tales to believe. Even the private investigator, digging another empty hole, seems mildly preposterous yet ringing with a sense of truth, or at least truthiness.

The Imposter is a wonderfully engaging set of competing stories about a family, their son, and their brief acceptance of a man who proved to be a stranger to them. More than that, however, it's broadly a comment on the nature of documentary itself, the compromised role of investigation from a professional standpoint, be it the form of State department or FBI case work, or the interviews set on tape by the documentarians themselves.

The audience is treated to one of those rewind-the-tape effects early on, a Bergman-esque nod to the presence of technical mechanism being shaped by the hands of the artists. Once we've spent our time in this strange world, the soothing accent of our gap-toothed narrator intertwined with the southern drawl of our shell shocked, tragicomic family, it impossible not to define their roles in part the way we would with so-called "fictional' characters in film. This is no failure by the documentarians, instead its a sophisticated, non-invasive deconstruction of the normal means in which stories of this type get told.

There's nothing arrogant or overtly academic in what the makers of The Imposter accomplish - it's an aesthetically pleasing, conventionally paced work that's surely accessible to a wide audience. It will, perhaps, shatter many misconceptions as wider audiences view the film, bringing to it their own preconceptions and beliefs that shape their own understandings of what it means to document a story that actually transpired.

Where Paradise Lost or many Morris docs still hold out for some sort of notion of objectivity on the part of the filmmaker, this film is unapologetically subjective, proving to be even more respectful of the convoluted nature of reality, a reality that doesn't often fit into notions of simple narrative structure. The The Imposter's greatest trick is in laying bare its motivations, yet still sucking us in almost moment by moment as the story unfolds, our own allegiances and beliefs about what "really" happened shifting with almost every scene. By the end, one is left perplexed, confused, but critically entertained.

Neither a dreary polemic or a dusty philosophical treatise, The Imposter is that rare form of entertainment that's incredibly incisive, intellectually stimulating and beautifully constructed. The film may fool us at every turn, but it is an antidote to during a week where many will watch documentaries that do little more than point a digital camera at a subject, or raise up mild political points for a partisan audience so that they have their own preconceptions solidified within a community of like-thinkers. If a great documentary can be both challenging to the core your own beliefs about a given story, while being impeccably well presented and crafted, then the greatest irony about The Imposter is that it proves, in the end, to be the real thing.
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