Unknown White Male (United Kingdom, 2005)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

A phrase I remember from a long-ago TV show argued: "A person is the sum of his memories." If that's the case, what's to be said about an adult man who loses his entire past in the span of one night? Does a loss of memory equate to a loss of identity? And how can someone who no longer knows his name, his favorite color, or his preferred food, speak with a rich vocabulary, scribble a signature on a piece of paper, and perform a barrage of everyday tasks? For biologists and psychologists, such an individual becomes a living experiment to test the "nature versus nuture" theory. How much of who we are is determined by genetics and how much is the result of the environment in which we develop?

Amnesia is a common plot device in movies and TV shows. If one were to go by soap operas, it's a fairly common occurrence. However, retrograde amnesia, in which a person's entire history is wiped out, is extremely rare. But, about three years ago, it struck Doug Bruce while he was on a New York subway train. When he emerged, he no longer knew who he was. Doctors could not explain his condition (although they ruled out brain damage), nor could they determine if and when he would re-connect with his lost memories. He was committed to a psychiatric ward until someone who knew him provided a name and information about his lost life. For Doug, this began the process of living again - a kind of re-birth.

Rupert Murray, a friend of Doug's from the 15-year period the two spent together in England, decided to make a film chronicling Doug's experience. The documentary Unknown White Male is the result. In addition to footage shot by Murray, the movie also includes home movies of the "old Doug" as well as stuff shot by Doug shortly after his release from the hospital, as he tries to provide a video record of what it's like to begin life anew as an adult. The result is a compelling motion picture that's one part mystery, one part science, and one part philosophy.

The new Doug doesn't remember the old Doug, and makes no attempt to emulate him. He watches movies of himself with bemusement and detachment. As far as he's concerned, that's another person. The old Doug may not be dead, but he's locked away in the new Doug's mind - unreachable, at least for the moment. As the days pass and Doug begins to develop his new life, connecting in new ways with old friends and family members, falling in love with someone, and re-building himself, he no longer cares if his memories come back. He expresses regret at not being able to recall his childhood and his deceased mother, but little else seems to matter. And his girlfriend is afraid that if/when he remembers, he might no longer be the person she loves, or he might not continue to love her.

Others remark that Doug has changed. He's happier, more secure, and less cynical. The more they get to know the new Doug, the more the old Doug fades from their minds. Weirdness gives way to familiarity. The central question that everyone grapples with is whether there is one Doug or two Dougs. Even Doug doesn't know the answer. He calls memory a means of time travel - something everyone possesses except him. Talking heads explain about different kinds of memory and what it all means, but there are only two conclusions that can be drawn from their words: science and medicine lack understanding about memory, and Doug's situation remains an enigma.

Unknown White Male is a kind of video diary of the first 21 months of Doug's new life. By the end of the film, he has not regained his memory but, other than the amnesia, he's no different than anyone else. As he builds new memories, he becomes more complete. In some ways, he's like a thirty-something man. In others, he's like a two-year old boy. Doug's story is a testimony not only to the mysteries of the mind but to the resilience of the human spirit. Consider the near impossibility of re-booting one's life. It's a terrifying prospect, but Doug is proof that it can be done.

The film is unable to offer answers to many of the questions it raises, because the current bank of human knowledge doesn't contain resolutions. Unknown White Male challenges us to consider memory and identity in the same way that a fictional film like Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind does. It wouldn't surprise me if someone took Doug's story and made it into a feature. There's enough drama here to fill two hours. Whether or not that happens, Rupert Murray's account represents fascinating viewing, and the richness of the subject matter more than makes up for the crudeness of some of the visual elements.

NOTE: Is it all true, or is it a hoax? That's the question being asked about this movie. The producers stand by Unknown White Male's veracity, but some journalists are not convinced. For the purposes of this review, I have assumed that the film holds to the accepted tenets of a documentary and accurately reflects what happened, albeit reflected through the perspectives of Doug Bruce and Rupert Murray. If this turns out not to be the case, the review will need to be revised. One of the most compelling aspects of Unknown White Male is that this is a true-life story. Should that turn out not to be the case, the production becomes less interesting.

Unknown White Male (United Kingdom, 2005)

Director: Rupert Murray
Cast: Doug Bruce
Cinematography: Orlando Stuart
U.S. Distributor: Wellspring Media
Run Time: 1:28
U.S. Release Date: 2006-02-24
MPAA Rating: "PG-13" (Profanity)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1