Unknown White Male

Unknown White Male

Doug Bruce is haunted by the blank spot that is his past.

(Wellspring) Doug Bruce, Rupert Murray. Directed by Rupert Murray

We are a product of the things we remember. Our lives are shaped by our experiences, our book-learned knowledge and our relationships. All of this resides in our memory. Who would we be if our memory failed us?

That’s what happened to Doug Bruce, a handsome and successful British expatriate who had been raised in a well-to-do family, become a success in Paris as a stockbroker, then abruptly quit the financial business and moved to New York City to study photography. From what it seemed, he was in the process of reinventing himself already when he received the ultimate reinvention.

One July morning in 2003 he awoke to find himself on a subway train with no idea how he got there or where the train was going to. A few moments later, he had a far more chilling revelation; he didn’t have any idea who he was, where he lived or what his name was.

He got off the train at Coney Island and made his way to a police station and explained the situation. They sent him in turn to a hospital where doctors examined him while the police tried to find some clue about who he was. He was carrying no identification on him, no wallet but he did have a backpack in which a phone number was written on a book he was carrying.. The police called the number and had the woman on the other end speak to the amnesiac, but she didn’t recognize him. However when her daughter saw him on television, she knew immediately who he was.

This documentary is about Doug and his journey to in essence rediscover himself. The filmmaker, who also narrates the film, was friends with Doug before the amnesia. That works both for and against the film. He has knowledge about Doug both before and after the amnesia which makes him something of an expert. However, his friendship with the subject puts his objectivity in the wastebasket. Whether or not it’s a fair trade-off is really for the viewer to decide.

As the film progresses, Doug loses his immediate need to reconnect with his past and slowly begins forging his own personality, one which according to his friends differs significantly from his old one. In essence, he becomes an entirely new person, one who only shares a body with the old Doug Bruce. The ramifications of that are astounding when you think about it.

It should be noted that full retrograde amnesia of the sort that Doug is afflicted by is incredibly rare and is usually temporary – in fact, it is so rare that the condition becomes permanent that medical professionals have raised questions about whether Doug’s condition is a hoax. There has been additional speculation about that in the press.

I am not nearly qualified enough to render an opinion one way or the other and only bring it up in the interest of full disclosure. I will only say that we know so little about how the brain works that anything is, in my opinion, possible and those neurologists who say that Doug is faking because of some absolute belief that they understand how the brain works is arrogant and foolish. Let’s just say that it is theoretically possible that someone could suffer a complete and permanent retrograde amnesia and leave it at that.

What matters to me is the movie and from a standpoint of holding my interest it certainly does that. I can’t imagine what it would be like to have no memories of your past; it would be as if you had died and been reincarnated in your same body. The thought makes my skin crawl.

I would have like to have been given more background on the medical side; there is an indication that a severe physical trauma or emotional trauma is normally what triggers this kind of condition, but Doug showed no signs of either. Doctors are in fact puzzled at what might have caused his condition (although an unrelated pineal tumor is discovered later in the film); in fact, no cause has been pinpointed to date for Doug’s condition and his memory has yet to return.

So who is Doug Bruce and what is to become of him? These are the questions that Murray attempts to at least partially answer and in all honesty, these are questions that are ultimately unanswerable. It is hard enough to figure out who we are with the benefit of our experience and memories; to do so with a blank slate must be frightening indeed. I do not envy Doug Bruce in the slightest, but I will admit that his story raises some questions that will have me pondering for quite a while.

WHY RENT THIS: The movie raises fascinating questions about the role of our memories in determining who we are.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The possible causes for his condition aren’t adequately explored.

FAMILY VALUES: There’s some profanity and the subject matter is on the adult side, but all in all it’s suitable for all ages.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Bruce was raised in Nigeria.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: There is an update on Bruce’s condition.