Unknown White Male (2005 )
Directed by Rupert Murray
Tagline: If you lost your past, would you want it back?
Plot Outline: The true story of Doug Bruce who woke up on Coney Island with total amnesia. This documentary follows him as he rediscovers himself and the world around him.
Credited cast: Doug Bruce …. Himself
An unknown white male, mid-thirties in age, wakes up on a New York subway train passing through the environs near Coney Island, the last stop on the line. He is in wholly unfamiliar surroundings, industry and apartment blocks, gritty. At the end of the line, he has the facility to find his way off the subway to the street, he has no idea where he is, who he is or what to do about it.
It’s early morning, Coney Island, the day after the Fourth of July. He’s dressed in shorts and sneakers, tee shirt and backpack. He has no wallet or ID (unexplained, when I go walking in the early morning, I make it a point to take my wallet, with money and ID, just in case, but there are plenty of people who don”t).
Not knowing what else to do, he goes to the police station and says he doesn”t know who he is. After substantial questioning, they check him in as Unknown White Male and take him to the Coney Island City Hospital. He’s put in a room to waitâ€”this particular hospital on this particular day is a zoo!â€”and after several hours, he’s questionedâ€”they ask if they can call him John, or Johnny just to address him as a personâ€”a form is filled out and he’s asked to sign. How can he sign it? He doesn”t know his name. He takes a pen, and scrawls a signature. His signature. It’s just a scrawl, but it clearly begins with the letter “D.” This is progress. He’s transferred to a psychiatric hospital.
This film is compelling on a number of levels. There is the story itself that is unique; the total loss of memory of identity and past events, but no physiological damage; according to doctors interviewed, an extremely rare condition.
We (and he) learn that he lives in a loft in New York, made lots of money as a stockbroker and quit to study photography. His father and sister live in Spain (mother recently deceased). Thus, he has no wife and children, no job. No built-in life to reassume.
He spent part of his childhood in Paris and lived in London for a number of years in his twenties. There he met Rupert Murray, a filmmaker. When Rupert (who does narration) learns of his condition, he calls Doug and says he wants to do a film.
The cinematography runs the gamut from home movies of Doug’s past, to interviews with Doug taken by amateur interviewers shortly after his discharge from the hospital; to interviews of Doug, various doctors, Doug’s family and London friends by the director. Early on, Doug carries a camcorder to record his rediscovery of himself. Particularly poignant, is the reunion with his father and sister at an airport in Spain; the arrival area is chaos and Doug records it all as he comes off the plane to find them, walking up to them, camcorder in the face. There are some weird, wonderful, and sometimes jarring, visual and musical images, meant to portray what it must be like in Doug’s head as he is disorientedâ€”and everything, everything is new to him.
Nobody knows if Doug will ever regain his full memory, but does it really matter? He has a new life, a serious girlfriend and he’s back in photography school and doing some very good work.
It’s incredible that Doug was totally open in inviting us into his condition and world and that Rupert Murray was able to tell the tale with skill and imagination. Put this one on your must see list.
–mr.2.9.06 San Francisco
As a member of the San Francisco Film Society, I am privileged to be invited to free screenings of upcoming films, once a month, or more. Often, the director and/or a principal actor is present for Q&A. The invitation for Unknown White Male was in my email box on Monday, for viewing Thursday, February 9th. I read the synopsis and said, “Eh, do I really want to see this?”
Over the past year, I have gone to a number of SFFS films that were unexpectedly enlightening and enjoyable, and a few stinkers. I learned that the good ones were, reliably, at an independent theater (Hustle & Flow, Mrs. Henderson Presents,), and the stinkers at a chain multiplex (The Brothers Grimm). This one played at the Lumiere. I signed up. Carol didn”t want to go, she had to see Jerry Rice on Dancing With the Stars on the TV.