I was so amazed with a certain documentary I saw a few weeks ago called Unknown White Male. It's about a guy who woke up one morning, only to find himself on the New York Subway heading to Coney Island. He had no idea who he was, no idea where he was going, and no idea how he got to where he was.
The man's name is Doug Bruce, and his story is caught on film in this documentary. His best friend, Rupert Murray, traveled from London to New York to film Doug's battle from total amnesia to how he is today. Doug is not fully recovered today, nor will he probably ever remember what happened to him before the amnesia. But according to Rupert, that's fine with Doug. "He's doing extremely well, he's getting on with his life. If you met him today or at any time throughout his amnesia you wouldn't know anything was wrong; it's not something you would guess. He's getting on with photography, he's getting along great with his girlfriend, who appears in the film; she's fantastic. He's living in New York and having a great time. I don't see anything particularly lacking in his life."
This story starts way before his recovery. It goes back to the July, 2003 day when Doug woke up in Coney Island without even a clue of what happened to him. Rupert traveled back to the police station and back to the hospital where Doug's first interactions were with other people. Some of the footage from the documentary is from other friends of Doug's who chronicled the first few days after his amnesia. Other footage is from Doug himself, who took out his camera and followed himself around. For Rupert, using this footage was a very important tool in telling Doug's story.
But it was that initial meeting between Rupert and Doug; after a 15 year friendship, meeting someone again for the first time was very difficult. "I didn't know if we would be able to become friends. I was slightly scared that he had some new things in his life and he seemed to be getting on very well. After the first day I wondered if I could make this relationship work and would it go anywhere? Luckily it did and we were able to build on it and move forward. I don't know what the most challenging thing was. In terms of that initial period it was so exciting for me to find out all the stuff that had happened to him and to imagine the kind of film I was making."
We know what happened, but I wanted to know why Rupert would make a documentary in the first place. His answer was pretty simple. "I'm a documentary filmmaker and that's what I had done in the past. That's been my primary interest in terms of making programs and films."
Simple enough, but why Doug's story? "I think what's interesting about Doug's situation is there have been lots of feature films about amnesia and here was an opportunity to record what happened to someone who experienced it for real, as a true story. I think that's a powerful thing for audiences, hopefully, that it is real. Also, there are things in his story that you couldn't really make up. Some of it's so fantastic that you couldn't put it in a script."
Rupert is so right about that; how he even found out who he was is an amazing tale. And it all has to do with a simple piece of paper with a phone number on it. After Doug got off the subway train, he went to the police. They thought it was a strange case, so they sent him to the hospital. There was a ripped piece of paper with a phone number; the woman who answered had no idea who Doug was, but her daughter did.
That was a great beginning for how Doug started to gain back who he was. Going back to the Coney Island police was an essential part of this documentary. "It was quite difficult to track these people down; I had to work out who had been on duty that night. It's a teeny little office; I told them the story and they started to remember Doug."
Unfortunately, their stories were all over the place; they remembered Doug, but couldn't really recall the exact situation. The Coney Island Hospital was the next step, and again, they remembered him, but not to the extent Rupert had hoped for.
What did come out of the hospital for Doug was his memory of French; apparently, his amnesia did not affect his memory of language. "There is a weird thing that happened to him in the hospital that gives you an idea to what is left. There were lots of amazing coincidences that happened that I didn't put in the film as it would have made it too weird, in a way. A woman called up and asked if there was anyone in the hospital that doesn't know who they are and can speak fluent French? So they asked Doug if he can speak fluent French and he said, ‘I don't know.' He then tried and fluent French came out. He might have been able to speak fluent French, but he had no idea what Paris was like, he had no recollection of ever having lived there for 8 years, but if you asked him what the capital of France was he could tell you. He still speaks fluent French and he remembers language."
Wow, when I heard that, I was floored. That didn't make it into the documentary, just for timing purposes. But Rupert had researched amnesia and found out there are three types. "It comes down to the idea that there are 3 different types of memory. There is episodic memory, which is our memory for our personal, autobiographical use. There is procedural memory, which is memory for skills like how to pick up a bottle or speak. Then there is semantic memory, which is the general knowledge of the world and how things work. [Doug] just lost his memory for his autobiographical past."
The most difficult part for Doug was seeing his family for the first time. They live all over the world, including his father and sisters in Spain; that initial meeting was captured by Doug on his own mini video camera. Rupert added that into the documentary, and his family's reaction was as unsettling. "I think it was very hard for them at the beginning. It was very hard for his father and his sister to come to terms with it, but it's something they've had to deal with. They've had to deal with a new Doug and who he is. It's all working out fine, I think. They don't spend as much communal time together as a normal family, I would imagine."
The hardest part to take in the film is when Doug finds out his mother had passed away. The morning after his amnesia started, he wanted to call her; the girl who found him had to tell him that his mom has died nearly a year and a half before. Doug's family has seen the documentary; they are very pleased, according to Rupert. "They all found it very emotional, but they all enjoyed it. There was a bit of difficulty to begin with to get some of them involved, but I persuaded them that it was going to be a good thing for him and that it wasn't going to affect him adversely so they all agreed to take part. I think they are all thankful that they did." Rupert went over to Spain to talk to Doug's family separately; he conducted interviews with his father and two sisters.
As far as Rupert's first reaction to the film, that's a little different. "For me, once the film was finished, I'm not happy with it by any stretch of the imagination, and I change it an awful lot, it would seem like minor changes to you, but they were big changes for me."
But he's learned to accept that negativity; I mean, if you think about it, no one likes what they do the first time. You need to show it to someone else and get their opinions on it; then you feel better about it. And that's exactly what Rupert did; he started to show it to audiences. "I think the most exciting thing for me was watching people's reactions to it. Now I don't watch the screen, I just watch people watching the screen and I wait for their answers and questions afterwards; that's a really exciting thing for me. Normally when you make a TV documentary in England it's on TV and you call your friends and ask if they saw it and they say, ‘Sh*t, I was down at the pub! Sorry mate, I'll see it next time.' You spent all that time making it. But here, the longevity of this project is amazing. Watching people enjoy it and ask questions about it is fantastic."
And for Doug, he's seen it too and really enjoyed it; that was Rupert's goal. "When I made the film I wanted to make sure his well-being was my number one priority. Every decision I made he would be privy to. We made decisions together so in a sense it's kind of co-directed with him. I think he's really, really proud of the film. If he hadn't been proud of it I don't think he would have wanted it to go out. I think he would have fought against it. He gives it his full endorsement, which is good."
And I give my full endorsement as well. Unknown White Male hits theaters February 24th in limited cities. Look for it to expand nationwide soon.