Dir: Rupert Murray. UK. 2005. 88mins.
A bizarre case of amnesia yields philosophical foodfor thought as well as an unorthodox character study in Unknown White Male, a thought-provoking documentary by Britishfilm-maker Rupert Murray.
The film's subject is afriend of Murray's - a 35-year-old Englishman named Douglas Bruce who suddenlyand inexplicably lost all memory of his past life. This highly intelligentcollage of a film - which makes ample use of Bruce's own video footage -provides teasing insights into the enigma of memory, and raises complexexistential questions about the nature of self and how it is formed.
With Bruce's candid, winningpersonality at its centre, the film has a compelling narrative thrust. Shortlisted for the Academy Awards documentary section, thefilm has good commercial prospects (it is due for US release through Wellspringearly in 2006), especially as its visual execution is considerably more stylishthan several recent theatrically-successful documentaries.
The film starts by sketchingthe case history of New York-based Bruce, a stockbroker turned photographer whoone morning woke up on the subway at Coney Island with no knowledge of how hegot there and all memory of his past, even of his name, totally erased. Withhelp from the police and medical services, Bruce attempted to establish hisidentity, his only lead being a name on a scrap of paper: it turned out to bethat of an ex-girlfriend's mother.
Back in his well-appointedNew York apartment, Bruce sets out filming his 'new life', as he startslearning about himself and the world. His own footagecovers his reunion with his father and two sisters, whom he meets as if theywere total strangers. Bruce's thoughtful lucidity is a gift to director Murray,who could not have hoped for a more acutely observant documentaristwithin his own film.
Harrowing as his experiencemight initially seem, Bruce's story comes across as a very affirmative one ofrebirth and self-reinvention. The film conveys a poignant sense of him castingoff his former existence, and of a great distance between him and his old UKfriends.
Footage of Bruce's old lifeshows a privileged, hyper-confident jet-setter, while the new Bruce is gentlerand more pensive, and has even developed a new artistic voice in hisphotography - "as if his senses had been sharpened by a rebooting of thesystem."
We watch Bruce undergo achild-like rediscovery of the world, encountering such pleasures as the ocean,chocolate mousse and the Rolling Stones as if for the very first time: anextraordinary sequence has Murray taking him for an impromptu London ride andexplaining the Changing of the Guard.
In such scenes, Bruce comesacross not as a naif, still less as someone damaged,but as an intelligent Martian, blessed with the capacity to see "no cliches or stereotypes, only originality."
As the film ends, hisamnesia remains unexplained, but he has settled down with a new girlfriend, andseems genuinely to have been reborn in a way that many might envy. The questionremains, however, of what would happen if - as seems highly likely - his memorydoes return.
Along with Bruce's owncommentary, Murray marshals insights from his subject's friends and family,medical and psychological experts, and philosopher Mary Warnock. Apart fromsparing use of impressionistic black-and-white montages, the film is soberlyexecuted, splicing together Bruce's footage, old home-movie material, Murray'sown imagery and the crisply atmospheric imagery from cinematographer Orlando Stuart.
Word of Mouth Films