Imagine if one day you woke up and couldn’t remember anything? Not justthe past week or the past year but you had lost memory of everything thathad ever happened to you. That’s the frightening new conceit of UnknownWhite Male, an incredible documentary where this very problem struck aLondoner living in New York.
Doug Bruce woke up on a subway car in Coney Island, not knowing where hewas, what he was on or who he was. He had no choice but to turn himself intothe police who were confounded by his lack of knowledge. They tried to piecetogether the clues he was carrying with him in his rucksack but none of themgave a clear idea as to who he was. When taken to the hospital, attemptswere made to contact the one number he had on him and eventually he waspicked up, still unsure of who he was and where he had come from.
So follows a harrowing journey as Doug tries to piece together his lifeagain. His amnesia so extreme that he didn’t even know what snow felt likeor what the ocean resembled. We are initially skeptical of Doug’s conditionas he seems to be acting in an overly calm and distant manner. But someearly footage of Doug shows him struggling to hold back tears as he recountsthe problems he has in remembering who he is and how any form of familiarityin his life was missing.
An old friend of Doug’s from Britain is the maker of this fascinatingfilm and so provides an added level of authenticity to the affair. Doug alsotook the strange option of filming some of the events as they happened onhis video camera. The first time he meets his father and younger sister forexample. It just seemed hugely convenient to me that he would be filming itbut maybe that’s just my overly cynical side coming out.
The film is full of powerful moments – David’s relationships with hisfriends in particular. When he goes back to visit his friends in England,there is an uncomfortable reunion. Even though these people have shared a20-year friendship with Doug, he treats them as if they are strangers. Theyknow that there will be no way of ever re-capturing the friendship theyshared with Doug and the Doug they used to know now only exists in theirmemories.
Doug is also faced with a dilemma. Does he really want to remember hispast? He soon decides, rather shockingly, that he is not actually interestedin remembering. He has had tough experiences in his past, the death of hismother (whom he cannot remember), being one of them. The people around himstate rather sadly that they miss the old Doug, a figure who now only existsin the ether. Doug has changed. He has become more introspective and lesscynical.
He rediscovers the world and doesn’t take anything for granted. Hissometimes muted attitude is often disconcerting but it’s just his way ofsorting out truth from fiction. When you’re being told your entire historyby complete strangers, it’s not always easy to believe everything you’retold. Unknown White Male is a compelling study of what a powerful partmemory plays in our lives.
It’s often over-stylised and there are a fewoverly dramatic music choices but overall it is a desperately sad look athow an internal problem, which could happen to anyone, can affect so manypeople in such a devastating way. One of the more significant documentariesof the year.