Financial security. Happiness. Health. Friends. Family. The environment. Safety. People commonly take and know they take these things for granted. What else should be part of this list? How about memory? Our identities and personalities are inextricably tied to our ability to remember the past that it’s become second-nature to the point of potential detriment. Only when we can’t recall a name, the context of a face, or the details of an experience do we realize how helpless we would be without our memory. The frustration of forgetting the name of that band, that historical figure, why someone looks familiar, or your ATM bank card PIN number is bothersome but does not last very long. The information returns or can be retrieved. Imagine what it would feel like if you woke up somewhere and didn’t know why you were there or your own name. When does confusion turn to panic? Doug Bruce knows the answer because he’s lived it. Rupert Murray’s documentary “Unknown White Male” artfully captures the portrait of a man forced to forge a life for himself again.
That “Unknown White Male” is a documentary about a man who on July 3, 2003 wakes up to find himself at Coney Island without a clue as to why he is there or who he is makes you do a cognitive double-take. You wonder how the filmmaker could’ve made a documentary because the content synopsis is in present tense and for some reason, the concept and the genre just don’t compute. But as “Unknown White Male” proves, the disbelief is the result of semantics. Incorporating dramatized footage, interviews, home videos, video diary segments, and material shot specifically for the documentary, Murray’s film is about Doug Bruce, a man in his mid-thirties who woke up at Coney Island and had no idea who he was or why he was there. The filmmaker’s voice-over narration guides your thoughts, highlighting questions when he deems necessary and letting you form your own in the silences. Titled after what a nurse wrote for his name, “Unknown White Male” starts with Murray’s voice establishing the subject and story of his film; “re-enacted” footage provides visual accompaniment. The remainder of the eighty minute-long documentary consists of how Doug learned his identity and follows him as he visits family and reunites with friends from his past.
In terms of “narrative,” the film keeps excellent pace, maintains your attention, and educates you on psychological ramifications of memory. According to Harvard University psychology professor Daniel Schacter, there are three main kinds of long-term memory that contribute to shaping a person’s sense of self. Episodic memory pertains to experiences that are unique to each individual. Semantic memory relates to one’s general knowledge of the world, or what one learns in school. Procedural memory governs skills such as how to write, how to cook, and how to operate machinery. If a person’s episodic memory is lost then that person may know who is President, the product of twelve times twelve, but not their name or their address. In Doug’s case, he couldn’t remember who he was but he could speak fluent French and list several Australian cities. From his own words to insights from one of his sisters, a possible explanation for Doug’s amnesia is the amount of stress in his life brought on by his mother’s death and his tendency to keep certain emotions locked inside. Potential causes aside, “Unknown White Male” presents to us a man whose ordeal enabled him to recreate himself. Although he has to re-learn a few things (two years worth of photography studies in two months, navigating through his neighborhood in New York City), Doug has found a stronger sense of purpose. The year he spent negotiating his old and new life has rekindled his desire to live it joyfully and enthusiastically. One day Doug’s memory may come back and when it does, Murray will be there and the story of the “Unknown White Male” will continue.