Tuesday, April 04, 2006

UNKNOWN WHITE MALE - fascinating and, to my mind, not fake

UNKNOWN WHITE MALE is an interesting documentary by Rupert Murray that has probably attracted more media attention than it deserves, or than is good for it. The subject of the documentary is Rupert’s friend Doug Bruce. One day, Doug woke up on a subway train to Coney Island. He had no idea who he was or what he was doing there and his backpack contained no identifying material except the phone number of a random woman. Doug turned himself in to the police, who contacted the woman, whose daughter – an ex-girlfriend of Doug’s – came to pick him up. The documentary follows Doug’s attempts to rebuild his life, shorn of any memory of who he used to be. We see the uncomfortable meetings with close family and former friends – nervous of whether he will feel an instinctive attraction to them. Doug does not regain his memory and seems nervous or regaining a life that he now feels is somewhat redundant. By the end of the film, he is happily in love with a woman who did not know him before the amnesia, and pursuing a life in the New York arts scene. Even his old friends and family seem to agree that he is “happier”* and more mellow in his new life.

Doug comes across as a genuinely engaging guy who is coping with a lot of very bizarre and frightening stuff with a great deal of character. The moment that stands out for me is the emotional intensity as he describes how, when he didn’t know who he was, he was able to, somehow automatically, sign his name in the hospital register and realise that “I am somebody”. If the film is emotionally engrossing then this is down to the fact that the director was able to get hold of a lot of old home video footage, photographs and Doug’s own video footage of his recovery. In fact, to my mind, the weakest parts of the film were the director’s reconstructions of Doug’s experiences, thanks to an altogether too liberal use of distorting lenses and weird camera angles. I get the point that the director was trying to show us how disorientating Doug's experience was, but there was too much of it. I also got the feeling that, having dismissed organic neurological damage as the cause of Doug’s amnesia, the director had missed a trick in not examining the possibile pyschological causes of it. Perhaps this is the disadvantage of having a director that is too close to his subject. But, havign said all that, what I did love was the fact that the director managed to convey the philosophical interest of the case – in other words, what is the meaning of identity? I left the screening with lots of questions and (happily) few answers.

I feel compelled to say a few quick words about the controversy that has surrounded this film in the US, where certain critics and film-makers, not least Michel Gondry, have alleged that the Doug Bruce case is a fake. According to Roger Ebert, while it is hard to find documentary evidence on the case, the film-makers convinced him that it was real. Having attended a brief Q&A with the director and producer in London, I can attest to their hurt and outrage at the accusations, although this alone is not enough to convince. What did convince me – a professional cynic – was the “performance” of Doug Bruce, which seemed, to me at least, utterly authentic. But in the final analysis, I am not sure if it even matters whether or not this is real (other than on narrowly puritanical grounds, but who is Hollywood kidding anyway?) The issues raised in the film are interesting and deserve cinematic discussion, and the central character is engaging. And that, dear reader, is more than I get out of most movies.

UNKNOWN WHITE MALE premiered at Sundance 2005 and was shown at the London Film Festival 2005. It went on limited release in the US in February 2006 and goes on limited release in the UK on April 7th 2006. There are no continental release dates but it is worth looking out for on DVD. *He DOES seem happier, but I cannot think of anything more tragic than waking up one day with my love for West Indian cricket having been erased.


  1. You seem to accidentally have written "know" instead of "now" near the end of the first paragraph.

  2. Cheers, mate - I'll correct it.