February 28, 2006

Thanks for the Memory: 'Unknown White Male': A Personal Tale of Retrograde Amnesia


Doug Bruce, subject of Unknown White Male. Courtesy of Wellspring Media

When filmmaker Rupert Murray heard about an old friend who had lost his memory overnight, he couldn't get the story out of his head: A 35-year-old stockbroker living in New York City finds himself riding the subway in Brooklyn with just a few random articles in his backpack. He has no idea who or where he is. He goes to the police department and is subsequently sent to the hospital in an ambulance. Since he has no identification with him, the nurses identify him as "Unknown White Male." But, thanks to a scrap of paper found in his backpack, with the phone number of a woman he had dated a few times, he is determined to be Doug Bruce, and he has suffered retrograde amnesia. This condition has left him with language skills, but has wiped out all knowledge of his past.

"You know, it's an amazing thing to have your autobiographical past removed from you," says Murray. "What kind of person does this mean you are? And how much do all of the billions of experiences that we've all had in our lives actually mean?"

Murray and Bruce were old friends, but it had been about a year--and eight months since Bruce's memory loss--since they'd seen each other. Murray was circumspect about contacting Bruce. "If Doug doesn't remember his past and his friends, what kind of basis is there for any sort of relationship?" he reflects. Making a documentary was a way to move the relationship forward.

Murray took about two months to craft a heartfelt letter to his friend, and at the same time proposed to make a film. Bruce was receptive to the idea, not so much as a way to help him reconnect with his previous life but rather for the creative possibilities a film could offer. The new Doug had resumed his study of photography at the School of Visual Arts in New York.

Murray initially thought the film was going to be about meeting his friend for the first time since the memory loss. Part of the plan was to go to New York and record this meeting, but the moment he met and started talking to Bruce it became apparent that Murray's role in the film would be less as a friend and more as a narrator and guide; the 15-year history they had shared didn't mean anything now. "There was a complete blank," Murray recalls. "Doug didn't have a sense of who he was." As a way to make a new connection, Murray brought old home movies for Bruce to watch.

Bruce had to reacquaint himself with family members and old friends in England. If friendship is made up of memory, emotion and chemistry, where did this leave Bruce? It was difficult for family and friends who identified with the old Bruce, and now found themselves uncertain of their roles in his new life.

There is a sequence in the film where Bruce is sitting in a storage space looking through pieces of his past, and Murray posits, "Why should Doug be obsessed with the past when what lay ahead of him was a voyage of unbelievable discovery? Doug now saw the world with the eyes of a newborn baby, but appreciated it with the mind of an adult."

The challenge for Murray as a filmmaker was to come up with a visual style for something that mostly takes place in Bruce's mind, and render this with authenticity. "A lot of the film leaves the area of traditional documentary," Murray notes. "I could never really replicate what Doug actually felt. He could tell me what it was like and I could try to recreate it."

Early in the film, Murray reconstructs the day Bruce found himself on the train and didn't know who he was. Murray uses a wide-angle lens to signify the way Bruce must have seen the world. "It's a sort of wide-eyed drinking in of every kind of visual texture and experience in front of him," Murray explains.

Murray watched a lot of films about memory and memory loss, including Michel Gondry's Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Andrew Jarecki's Capturing the Friedmans, Alfred Hitchcock's Spellbound and the films of Man Ray and the surrealists. He looked to these films more for visual inspiration than for narrative context. "I was interested in the surrealist films," says Murray. "In Spellbound, there's a dream sequence co-directed by Salvador Dali, and a lot of the main ideas behind surrealism are quite relevant to Doug's story because they ask how much of our 'consciousness,' or the mind, isn't present with us in our everyday lives. How much does that inform our personality and our actions?"

The audience revels in the discovery of the mundane with Bruce. To convey Bruce's sense of exhilaration and delight at seeing everything for the first time, Murray creates a montage of people, places, colors and shapes that adds up to a visual and aural rhapsody that is at once breathtaking and overwhelming.

The film has played for test audiences and at festivals such as Sundance and the Los Angeles Film Festival, and there's usually someone in the audience who doesn't believe the story. People have commented that something doesn't ring true--either that everybody in the film is too good looking, or that the story is just too far-fetched: a 35-year-old, independently wealthy stockbroker gets amnesia, has no record of his past and is completely free to make up a new life.

When test audiences in England first suggested it was a hoax, Murray had not anticipated this reaction. "I was really committed to this film and suddenly people were saying that it's not true," says Murray. "If people thought it was a hoax, they wouldn't enjoy the film as much; they'd feel cheated."

He wanted to close off this possibility, so he re-edited the film and included as much medical and philosophical context as possible. Dr. Daniel Schacter, chair of the psychiatry department at Harvard University , describes the different forms of amnesia, adding another dimension to the film. The British philosopher Mary Warnock discusses the philosophy of identity: "Dislocated from his past, Doug may be the same man but he is not the same person," she says in the film.

After exhaustive medical and neurological testing, the cause of Bruce's amnesia was never determined. Many factors could have contributed to it, but the film provides no concrete answer. Based on case histories about amnesia, doctors say that there is a 95 percent chance that Bruce will regain his memory. In the three years since Bruce suffered amnesia he has changed. Murray has watched him change from an outgoing man to a more thoughtful and reflective individual.

Not only has Murray been witness to his friend's redevelopment but he has traveled an incredible journey as a filmmaker, one that has taught him the power of a good story. "Making this film has raised my expectations and the standards for the films I want to make in the future," he maintains.

"And," he adds, "I'm good friends with Doug again."

 

Unknown White Male, produced by Beadie Finzi, will be released theatrically on February 17 through Wellspring Media and will air on Court TV later in the year.

Laura Almo is a contributing editor with Documentary. She can be reached at lauraalmo@mac.com.