Directed by Rupert Murray
Imagine if you had no idea who you were, that you lost all your memories, that you had to start life over. If the events that shaped your life never occurred, what would the new you be like? As you were reintroduced to things, would you have the same reactions or would your opinions change? Would you like the same foods, the same music, the same people as before? It sounds like science fiction, but it is a reality that people who suffer retrograde amnesia have to deal with, and at any moment it could possibly happen to you.
Unknown White Male is an examination of this phenomenon through the life of Doug Bruce who experienced it in July 2003. While traveling on a New York subway train, Doug inexplicably lost all memory of his identity. He went to the police department for help. Since he didn’t appear to have been the victim of a crime, he was taken to the hospital, but they couldn’t find any trauma or cause for it to have happened.
Rupert Murray had been an old friend of Doug’s from when they both lived in Britain, and wanted to tell Doug’s story. Eight months after the incident, he finally made contact and discovered Doug had already been videotaping events in an effort to understand and possibly bring back his memories. This footage provides great material for the film, which covers the first 21 months of the new Doug Bruce. We witness him being introduced to his family and friends. The moments are awkward because the relationships are no longer the same. He can tell these people love and care about him, but a mutual response is no longer automatic for him. What’s very intriguing is that while many hope the old Doug will come back, which is medically possible, the new Doug doesn’t. We also learn his joys of discovering chocolate mousse, snow, the ocean and a new band called The Rolling Stones.
Unknown White Male presents interesting questions, but not enough, and has no answers. A few doctors are interviewed who discuss amnesia. Also, British philosopher Mary Warnock talks about Doug being the same man since his life can be traced from birth, but not being the same person. It would have been interesting to hear from more philosophers and doctors about the workings of the mind.
The film suffers from poor direction. Murray tries to create a sense of Doug’s disorientation, but it doesn’t work because the montages of stock footage images and the overuse of a fish-eye lens don’t adequately recreate his state of mind. Some of the B-roll uses images that don’t contribute or match up with what’s happening and feel randomly chosen. There are recreations of events, which are understandable under the circumstances, but it raises questions of authenticity of those moments since the film deals with the unreliability of memory.
While I enjoyed watching Unknown White Male, I thought Doug’s story was stretched too thin. Some viewers will find the lack of a resolution unsatisfying, as the third act in the story is uneventful. Telling the story about a few people who have suffered the same affliction rather than focusing solely on Doug would have better served the film. Unless you enjoy pondering philosophical questions and being reminded of how fragile your life and identity is, this might not be the film for you.