Unknown White Male: focusing on the future

spiked-film: For once, a documentary about amnesia that isn’t obsessed with excavating personal history.

Nathalie Rothschild

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On 2 July 2003, Doug Bruce, a British ex-stockbroker turned photographer, found himself on a subway headed for Coney Island. He didn’t know his own name, why he was on the train or why he had bumps on his head: he had suffered complete retrograde amnesia. Luckily, he remembered what a police station was and turned himself in at one.

Among the items he had put in his backpack before heading out of his East Village loft, was a note with a phone number. It turned out to belong to the mother of a girl Doug had recently been dating. The girl picked him up at the Coney Island Hospital Psychiatric ward and Doug’s remarkable ‘new life’ started.

It may seem like the outline of a Hollywood movie – parallels have already been drawn to films like Spellbound, Memento and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. But Unknown White Male is a documentary about the experience of a man who at the age of 37 found that everyone he had ever known, including himself, had become complete strangers.

Reinstalling himself in the life of Doug Bruce, he finds that the clothes in his wardrobe feel like they have been worn by someone else, that the paintings on his walls look strange, and the letters he wrote to his mother as a young boy at boarding school are unfamiliar. Doug can’t identify with the younger version of himself – a cocky, wisecracking lad – that he watches on the home videos of his youth. He soon becomes less concerned with remembering his past and more concerned with getting on with his life.

Doug starts discovering the world, often with the wide-eyed naiveté of a child, but always with the considered reflections of an adult. He is overwhelmed by a visit to the ocean: throwing himself into the waves, he discovers that he remembers how to swim. He films the first day of snow in New York and the first time he sees fireworks. He discovers chocolate mousse, Cuban food and the Rolling Stones. A visit to the Metropolitan Museum blows him away. He catches up on two years of his photography course in two months, and his teacher says his work is better now than before he lost his memory.

Doug also has to come to terms with why the world is as it is. He takes a history class at college, which he says enables him to ‘find out about the last 500 years of what’s been going on in the world.’ ‘That’s a great help’, he continues, ‘I wanna know everything!’.

Since its opening at the Sundance Festival, Unknown White Male has been received with a mix of praise and scepticism. Some have doubted the sincerity of Doug’s story and the filmmaker’s treatment of his subject. The American film critic Roger Ebert, for instance, gave the film ‘two thumbs up’, but quickly changed his mind saying it was probably a hoax. Then, after a conversation with the film’s director and executive producer, Ebert was ‘persuaded that the documentary Unknown White Male is either (a) factual and authentic, or (b) the most convincing mockumentary ever made’ (1).

It is partly due to the weakness of the film that the hype and cynicism has found such fertile ground. Some questioning of what seems real and what seems fake would be expected, and much of this doubt could have been dispelled within the film itself. At times, it seems Murray is avoiding being too intrusive, maybe due to the awkwardness of the situation, and because he is personally close to and fully trusts his subject.

Of course, it doesn’t work in Doug Bruce’s favour that Unknown White Male was released less than a year after Andreas Grassl, aka The Piano Man, was found wondering the streets of Sheerness, and was later exposed as a hoax. But it would be a shame to let suspicion overshadow the truly fascinating questions raised by this documentary: What is the nature of the self? Are we the sum of our memories? Is our identity shaped by our personal experiences? Is it ever too late to redefine oneself?

Some of the disbelief expressed by reviewers (2) is probably down to the fact that it seems incredible that Doug is so forward looking, that he doesn’t feel much need to search for his roots. In fact, he mostly only seems to be concerned with his past when other people compel him to be so. It is of course understandable that Doug’s family and old friends and lovers would like him to remember them, so that they can play an important part in each other’s lives again. One can see why they are not satisfied with a blank slate. Still, though there are sad elements to Doug’s story, it is not a tragic one.

While he may not have had any control over his physical condition, Doug did have a choice in how to deal with it. The fact that he chose to get on with his life and not be conditioned by his amnesia makes his an inspiring and memorable story.

(1) Is it a good doc or merely a mock?, Chicago Sun-Times

(2) Unknown White Male: UK site; U.S. site

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