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Rupert Murray had known Doug Bruce for about 15 years when he heard that his friend had developed amnesia. Yet he didn’t contact his pal until months after the news began to circulate that Bruce, a Londoner who’d moved to New York, had shown up on Coney Island one day in July 2003, wearing shorts and flip-flops and minus his memories. Like Bruce’s other friends back home, Murray just didn’t know what to say.
“We’re English,” Murray offers. “I think people were quite scared. It’s an odd call to make.”
Among Bruce’s pub-crawling London chums, the 36-year-old director explains, heart-to-hearts are uncommon. “When someone says, ‘How you doing?’ unless the other says, ‘Brilliant. Great. Let’s go do something,’ it’s kind of difficult. If he says, ‘Oh, not very well. I’ve been a bit depressed,’ you’re like, Oh shit, what do I do now? I think it’s as simple as that.”
To Murray’s credit, it’s not quite as simple as that. Bruce had also put out word that he didn’t want to be overwhelmed by old friends. “We heard that he didn’t want people calling up,” Murray says. “He found it distressing, really.”
Bruce has a very rare form of amnesia with no certain cause. (A noncancerous tumor was found on his pituitary gland, but its effect is uncertain.) He forgot everything about his previous life but soon discovered that he could sign his name—and speak fluent French.
“It just sort of got inside my head, and I couldn’t stop thinking about it,” says Murray of his friend’s transformation. “I wanted to know who the person in New York was, where was the previous person. How is he getting on? What did he think about everyone from his past? I just sort of reached a crescendo, and I thought, I’ve got to make contact with him.”
Ultimately, Murray wrote Bruce a letter, one he’s been reading to audiences attending advance screenings of his film. He also reads it in the lobby of downtown’s Madison hotel a few hours before hosting another of those screenings, this time at the E Street Cinema.
“This letter has been some time coming, I suppose,” the missive begins. “The moment I heard you’d lost your memory, I felt confused, shocked, sorry. And then I thought, This would make a great film. And this is something I’ve been wrestling with ever since.”
After Bruce lost his memory, it turned out, one of his major rediscoveries was cinema—which influenced his decision to allow Murray to make his film, Unknown White Male. “Even now,” Murray says, “he goes to Wellspring,” the documentary’s distributor, to see films from its inventory. “He has gone through virtually their entire back catalog. And he’s still just as fascinated.”
Amnesia is a timeworn cinematic plot device, of course, and Unknown White Male’s press kit lists numerous fiction films that are somehow related to Bruce’s experience, from Regarding Henry to Memento to Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. Asked if he found such movies pertinent to Bruce’s condition, Murray shakes his head no.
But he did take inspiration from a few more-experimental works. “I was quite interested in surrealism and surrealist films,” he says. “There’s a great dream sequence in Spellbound that was co-directed by Salvador Dali. And I love Chris Marker’s Sans Soleil. That had more of an impact than anything else. It was the experiential impact of those images, the fact that they were being recalled. And the style of the film, as well.”
Ironically, Eternal Sunshine director Michel Gondry has become a nuisance to Murray, announcing his belief that Bruce is faking his condition. “Well, what does he know about it? Nothing, obviously,” the filmmaker responds. “I don’t think he’s even seen the film. He met Doug at a party.”
If Unknown White Male is a conspiracy, it’s a broad one. In the film, Bruce’s father, sisters, ex-girlfriends, and old drinking buddies all agree that he’s the same person, yet different. Video footage of the pre-amnesia Bruce shows a man who’s cockier, less childlike, and, frankly, less likable.
“I didn’t set out to make a 60 Minutes documentary,” Murray asserts. “I didn’t feel the need to justify what had happened to him or to prove it. Because, as a friend of his, I believed it. Had I made a film where you come out and think, There’s no doubt at all that that guy suffered amnesia, it wouldn’t be playing in cinemas across the United States.
“I think it’s a shame that the so-called controversy is overshadowing the film,” he continues. “People are now going in with an agenda, to decide for themselves if it’s true. And I’d much rather they went in with an open mind and be inspired by the questions that the film raises about personal identity.”
Perhaps one reason that some observers distrust the documentary is that its protagonist doesn’t seem to have suffered very much. An ex rushed in from Poland to help him regain his psychic balance, and a new girlfriend was in the picture before the filming ended. And although Bruce’s life was upended, he still had an expensive Manhattan loft apartment and no need to hold a job. At 30, he’d quit his work as a stockbroker in order to study photography.
The filmmaker argues that other circumstances are more significant than Bruce’s affluence, however. “I think the fact that he didn’t have any dependents is more relevant,” he says. “If he’d had three children, a wife, and a job, he would have had to confront his previous life immediately. He didn’t have to do that. Also, he was a student. That gave him time to explore the world. That gave him an incredible sort of freedom.”
In addition to archival footage and scenes shot by the subject himself, Unknown White Male includes two expressionistic sequences that attempt to convey the consciousness of Bruce’s rebooted brain: first as he wanders Coney Island in a fog, then as he encounters everyday phenomena that most adults take for granted, from snow to fireworks to the ocean.
“I wanted a really powerful montage scene that described the world and everything it contained—and that moment when he discovered the world exists,” Murray says. “It reflects that idea but not the experiences he had, because I had to troll through my own video archive of jobs I had done in the past or my dad’s home movies. So that section is actually a reconstruction of quite a few elements of my life, I suppose.”
Murray has spent some time contemplating his own memories and how they differ—or don’t—from those of an amnesiac. “A lot of personal history is derived from secondhand experiences, whether they be photographic or things that my parents told me that I’d done,” he says. “I have a very strong image of having watched the landing on the moon, sitting on my grandmother’s lap. I was 9 months old at the time. There’s no way I can remember it. So how different is my memory of who I’d been in the past different from his?”
Bruce, Murray notes, “knows all the details, all the actual information. He just can’t remember the actual experiences. So in a sense, I don’t feel that there’s any sort of void. He’s got part of his memory back, just by learning the information.”
In the film, one doctor estimates that Bruce has a 95 percent chance of regaining his memory. Murray cautions that this figure is “based on amnesia as a whole. The majority of people who lose their memory get it back. He should have got it back by now, but for whatever reason, he hasn’t.
“There’s no doubt that when I was making the film, I was thinking, Maybe he’s going to get his memory back, and then I’ve really got a film.” Instead, Unknown White Male became the story, the director says, of “how Bruce comes to terms with his situation and gets his life together. I wouldn’t say he’s beaten the amnesia, but he’s on top of things, moving on with his life.”
His friend is “a fairly impressive character,” Murray says, and more prepared than most to begin life anew. “He’s been developing and changing his person all his life. He’s probably done that a lot more than all the lads who are still in London. I don’t think the actual direction of his life has been altered that much. As a result of this, he’s just going to get wherever he was going quicker.”—Mark Jenkins