Unknown White Male gets my brain going more than any other documentary I’ve seen. The film deals with memory loss, a subject that Hollywood likes to weave stories about fairly frequently. Indeed, Unknown White Male at times does seem too extraordinary to be true. Perhaps it is. There has been a lot of discussions about whether the documentary is just a hoax or not. To me, it doesn’t really matter. The questions it raises are alluring either way.
At the center of the film is Doug Bruce, a young man who in 2003 woke up at a subway train in New York with no memory of who he was. Retrograde amnesia, the film tells us it’s called. Extremely rare. His recollections of his life up to that point were completely gone. We see him meet his old family and friends, people he don’t know anymore (one of them, Rupert Murray, is the one who decided to make this documentary). As time goes on, they remark that Doug isn’t quite the same guy anymore. He’s more introspective and philosophical, less arrogant. Thus, the main question the movie poses is: how much of who we are is shaped by our past experiences?
What really sticks to me about the film are all the small scenes where Doug rediscoveres the world, though. Imagine seeing fireworks or the ocean for the first time as an adult. Getting into old favorite bands and films with a blank slate. Not saying I would want to lose all my memories of my current life like Doug (supposedly) has, but there is some hard-to-describe appeal in being able to experience everyday things without any preconceptions.