Who are we? Are we the collected consciousness of our own history or something else entirely, something that may be defined as the soul? It is THE question. That's what Unknown White Male, in what is probably the best documentary of the year, tries to answer. Obviously nothing concrete is revealed, it is something that we will debate until our little monkey species vanishes of the face of the Earth, but the film sure does make you think it over.
Starting like a million Pulp stories before it; a man, with movie-star looks, wakes up one day on a subway near Coney Island, not knowing who he is. A scrap of paper with a phone number scribbled on it, found in his pocket is his first clue; it leads to the mother of an ex-girlfriend. She tells him he is Doug Bruce, an Englishman, a former-stockbroker, now retired to be a photographer, who owns a beautiful flat in New York's trendy East Village. It could be the beginning of a fun spy flick ala The Bourne Identity or a wonderful sci-fi mystery like Dark City, but this is all real.
Director Rupert Murray who was a childhood friend of Doug's, was still living in London when he heard about his affliction. Eight months after it happened, he travels to New York to meet the new Doug and start filming. The lost time is filled in with footage shot by Doug himself, a new curiosity for him, interviews with people close to him in the aftermath, and recreations of what Doug may have gone through for the first couple months of his new life.
Suffering from retrograde amnesia Doug has lost the memory of absolutely everything from his previous life. Not just who he is, but who all his friends were, the sensations of every day things, every song and movie he ever heard or saw... everything! Now, like a child, he gets to re-experience the world from a fresh perspective, but with the appreciation and senses of an adult. To see snow for the first time, to taste a fresh strawberry, to listen to the Rolling Stones and take a swim in the ocean. Director and editor Murray, with barrage of imagery and sound, does a very good job of recreating what all these millions of little things may have felt like for Doug all over again.
"Certainly he's the same man, questionably he's the same person," John Locke.
The toughest thing is not these lost experiences, it's the relationships that he's built. In the film Doug says he is more comfortable with people that didn't know him before his accident, because they don't expect anything of him. Imagine meeting your father for the first time at 34; how surreal to have that strong bond lost. All the memories of his friends and family now gone; replaced with people that recognize him, but now don't quite know who he is. Murray is there with his camera, as Doug meets a group of their old mates, now a room full of strangers; it is awkward for everybody. His reconnection with his sisters goes smoother; despite not remembering anything about their family history, Doug's natural rapport with them seems to be intact. The interesting thing is that Doug doesn't have many questions about his past.
He is happy to start over with a clean slate; he gets to reinvent himself. An old girlfriend of his confesses to liking the new Doug more. The cocky, sarcastic playboy has turned into a more sensitive and open person. His photography teacher says that his work has gained a lot of depth. Essentially, he's built a whole new world for himself. Nearly two years after his accident, he says that he's afraid of his memories coming back. He's not sure who he will be, if they do. Doug is happy with the man he has become.
Unknown White Male generally stays away from the scientific reasons of Doug's amnesia. It's explored a bit, but no official reason is ever given for Doug's malady. There's a small piece of an interview with a philosopher that adds a little to the discussion. But the film mainly focuses on Doug and those affected by it, the personal aspects. Murray moves the film along at a very quick pace, it's filled with wonderful photography, with multiple types of video playing out like memories; the washed out super-8 to the crispness of 35mm. The film's music and sound design also play a large part.
In a strange way, the weakest part of the film is Doug; he doesn't offer a lot of himself to the film. Understandably he doesn't want to bare his new self to the world. But it doesn't harm the film in any way. Doug is more a shell for the idea of this happening to you or a friend. Someone who we can explore this cinematic malady with, a person to place ourselves in. Ultimately, it is the concept and the delivery of the film that make it so satisfying.
Originally written for my now defunct documentary column: Truth Be Told