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Unknown White Male - LA Film Festival

By Daniel Lehman

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Doug Bruce was riding through New York in a subway train one morning when he realized he had no idea where he was, who he was, or even his own name. Somewhere between his apartment and the subway, the memory of his entire life had simply vanished. 

Doug Bruce found himself on a subway one morning with no memory of his life.

But Doug isn't a character in Kafka story or science fiction novel, he's a real person, a man who suffers from a rare form of retrograde amnesia that wiped out his entire episodic memory but left his semantic memory intact. He still knows how to speak, write, think and function in the world, but he has no memory of it. Most of his innate abilities are still intact; he just doesn't realize it until he inadvertently uses them like responding to someone in French, or signing his name despite not knowing what it is.

When filmmaker Rupert Murray heard the news about Doug his friend of 15 years he wrote a letter reintroducing himself and proposing the idea of a documentary. The result of their nearly two year collaboration is 'Unknown White Male,' an astounding portrait of a man who's lost his past that raises questions of identity, neurology, psychology and the collage of experiences that comprise our existence.

After nearly two years, Doug has reformed an identity, but still has a 95% chance of getting his memory back.

Murray is as curious about Doug's story as the rest of us, and he interviews scientists, psychologists, family members and anyone else he can learn from in order to present the most complete sense of Doug's condition and his past. Murray was fortunate to have a wealth of archival footage of the old Doug a distinctly different person than he is now and the scenes of Doug watching his former self as if he were a character in a film underscore just how different he's become.

But as much as he's changed, the intangible connection is still apparent between Doug and the family and friends he loved, even though he has no memory of them. With Doug's own footage filling in the gaps before the documentary started, we get to watch him meet everyone again. Hearing their stories of who Doug was, we begin to see that memory is more than just a collection of snapshots, it's an adaptive record that's almost entirely in the eye of the beholder.

Doug's amnesia is also striking in its effect on the identities of the people he knows. Years even decades of shared history and secrets are lost, and it begs the question of what a memory means when the other party no longer shares it.    

Rupert Murray, documentary filmmaker and longtime friend of Doug's.

With a subject this compelling, Murray wisely focuses on filmmaking and avoids any attempts to orchestrate drama or pity Doug has the unique opportunity to re-create his life from scratch, without baggage, regrets or bias. He sees the world through the eyes of an infant but with the fully formed mind of an adult, and Murray captures this sense of wonder through cinematic imagery. He'll often cut away as if distracted by a glimpse of them to images like a squirrel racing up a tree or the sun setting over the ocean, lingering on the image as if beholding it for the first time. The sight of fireworks exploding into color and shimmering in the night sky, or a handful of fresh snow being scooped off of car are imbued with a preternatural beauty as we get caught up in Doug's sense of wonder, as if we too are seeing them with new eyes. Doug has a 95% chance of recovering his memories, but with his newfound perspective on life, he's not sure that he wants them.   

Besides being a fascinating and beautifully shot look into the innerworkings of the mind and identity, 'Unknown White Male' is also an honest and unpretentious affirmation of the human spirit. Doug's remarkable experience allows the film to cut through the pomp and nonsense that clutter pop psychology, self-help literature and the motivational industry to arrive at a more simple truth. It advances the idea that we are more than the mere sum of our experiences, and although our past may affect or even define us to a degree, it doesn't rule us.

Published on Dec 31, 1969

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