The Nexus of Pop-Culture Fandom

Unknown White Male

Written by: Jen Huffman, special to CC2k

Fascinating stuff, but is it bullshit or not?

ImageThis chilling documentary tells the story of 35-year-old Douglas Bruce, who disappears one evening in July 2003, and eleven hours later he finds himself on the Coney Island subway (a terrifying place on a normal day) with absolutely no memory of who he is.  

Suffering from retrograde amnesia, an extremely rare condition in which the patient is unable to recall any past events, Douglas eventually turns himself into the police and winds up in the Coney Island Psychiatric Ward.  Given a wrist band labeled “Unidentified White Male” by the nurses, he has little more than a spanish book and a mystery phone number for “Eva” as any kind of clue to his identity.  Desperate, he calls the number repeatedly until someone on the other end recognizes his voice and takes him to a home he doesn’t know. There begins a new challenge as Douglas fights to relearn all about his past as a successful stockbroker turned photographer.  He speaks directly to us only six days after the incident, using his own video camera to deal with his isolation.

We see Douglas filming everything those first few weeks, trying to fill the voids in his memory with the brand-new world around him.  We become intimate with Douglas’s family and friends who painfully try to come to terms with this man whom they’ve loved for years but now cannot remember them.  It is heartbreaking to see his father’s face when he hears how his only son speaks to him – polite yet distant, no more emotion than one would pay to a cab driver.

Soon after this we meet the film’s director Rupert Murray, an old friend from London. After hearing about the incident he flies to New York to discover who this new Douglas Bruce is.  Is he the same man Murray had known for decades or a stranger?  Here begins the film’s toughest questions – to what extent do our memories shape us?  Without them are we still ourselves or do we lose our essence?  Do we become someone else?  

This film is Murray’s first and it does show. There are a few too many clips of Douglas’s old school chums and not nearly enough of his family or other relationships.  Whenever he is at a loss, Murray tries to cover using fast paced Trainspotting-like edits and sped up action too dizzying to watch.  

The film also falls into a familiar trap: raising more questions than it answers and thinking that’s a good thing.  There is little information about Douglas’ life in New York both before his accident and immediately after.  Was he living alone? How was he supporting himself?  Who were his friends and acquaintances there?  We are also left wondering about the extent of his memory loss.  What types of knowledge was he able to retain?  Did it affect his short term memory in any way?

The details become very hazy when we see Douglas discovering such things as the ocean and snow with a childlike wonder.  Has he lost all memory of these things?  If so, how was he able to get himself off the train and into the police station the night his amnesia struck?  Murray glides over these inconsistencies to focus more on the effects the amnesia has on Douglas’s personality, which admittedly is very fascinating.  

The basis of the amnesia is touched on several times during the film.  Many possible causes are introduced, such as small pituitary tumors found on the back of his head or an emotional breakdown due to his mother’s death.  After an exhaustive amount of tests the doctors conclude that there just isn’t going to be an answer. 

Incidentally, a truth-or-hoax controversy has sprung up around this film, maybe caused by the movie’s many (fishy?) ambiguities.  Both the film and Douglas Bruce have been accused of perpetuating a hoax by GQ, Variety, and London Daily Mail among others.  Roger Ebert first gave the film a rave review, then later published an article claiming it as a fake.  He has recently recanted stating “I am persuaded that the documentary Unknown White Male is either (a) factual and authentic, or (b) the most convincing mockumentary ever made.” 

My opinion?  No damn idea.  The people in the film are certainly telling the truth; they all come off as genuine and slightly awkward, as only real people can be.  I believe Rupert Murray is honest too — he doesn’t strike me as being a talented enough filmmaker to pull off a hoax this big.  As for Douglas Bruce?  Well, two and a half years is a long time to keep remembering everything you are supposed to forget.  If he is faking then he’s certainly earning his right to have amnesia.