Tuesday, February 28, 2006

Getting to know an Unknown White Male

Confounded doctors admit that they’ve only seen it in movies and textbooks. But in this documentary a mystery, perhaps the ultimate mystery occurs.

A healthy and successful young man wakes up on a train to Coney Island to discover – nothing. He has no idea who he is and nothing to indicate his name or address. He has completely lost his “episodic memory,” all of the details of his own personal experience – relationships, education, work, his own subjective reactions to the world. He retains the basics of his “semantic memory,” enough to let him conclude that the place to go for help is a police station. But everything else is just…gone.

And so, he goes from discovering an almost endless nothing to discovering an infinite everything. Like a visitor from another planet, he is an adult man for whom everything he sees is brand new. His family and friends are reassuring but also confusing – is he still the man they say they cared about if he cannot remember any of the shared experiences they describe? The wonders the rest of us take a little bit for granted, from the ocean to chocolate mousse, come to him pure and undiluted.

After a few days of detective work, he learns his name: Doug Bruce. But after months of medical tests and trying to remember the people and places everyone tells him were once part of his life, he still does not know who Doug Bruce is. Or, he does know who Doug Bruce is. He just doesn’t know who he was.

A documentary, “Unknown White Male,” takes us on this journey with Doug, the man who lost his memory. Director Rupert Murray was a close friend of Doug’s before he lost his memory. “I wrote him a letter and said, ‘Hi, I used to be a friend of yours and I'd like to make a film.’“

His movie is not just the story of Doug’s journey to finding himself but a meditation on the nature of identity, memory, and connection.

Murray and I met in Washington D.C.’s Madison Hotel to talk about the film.

What were you trying to say with this film?

I hope that people will apply this story to their own lives. That's the really interesting thing about this; it’s an amazingly rare story, an amazingly rare medical condition visited upon a unique character. The film allows you to experience in your own life the revelations and experiences that Doug does. With a documentary you allow yourself -- the way I filmed it particularly -- I wanted you to experience what it might have been like to wake up in Coney Island and not know where you are, to taste ice cream at age 35 for the first time.

How is Doug now?

He’s finished school, starting to become a photographer, still with the girlfriend you see in the film.

Why did he decide to go back to studying photography when everything in his life was so uncertain and unsettled?

It was something for him to do at the time, something other than wandering around the streets of New York watching. Everything was so new to him that he found it fascinating to watch people behave, how men reacted around women, how people dressed. Photography was a new experience for him that he felt quite at home with. He wanted to know whether he could regain that skill. A lot of it was already wired into his procedural memory but he was a quick learner with a huge appetite for information and experience. His memories are still there, he just doesn't have access to them.

How did you use the techniques of film to create the sense of unsettledness as he tries to cope with his lost of memory and of freshness as he encounters everything for what feels like the first time?

By filming those particular items and putting them in the film. It sounds very simple, but that’s what it was. That was all me eating in that time lapse, by the way. I cut it together, a montage of me going to four restaurants around my office, as Doug described the feeling of eating different foods for the first time.

How do you plan for a movie when you have no idea how it is going to end?

Welcome to the world of documentaries!

Do you consider yourself friends? Is he a new friend or your old friend?

Both -- we're very close now. He’s there and he's not there. The more I get to know the new person the more the old person becomes very old, very far away. He is essentially the same, getting closer, converging with to the person he was going to be.

But he used to be sarcastic and more guarded. He seems so different now.

If you had a bad car accident you'd be frightened about riding in a car, you’d make the most of your day, you’d try to be nicer to people. Catastrophes have an effect on your life; if they didn’t you wouldn't be human. He is different because of the all-encompassing effect on his life. Having to deal with the situation that was that emotionally draining gave him great strength. It is a lesson to us all that he held it together and got it under control and worked through it.

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