Unknown White Male (documentary)

On July 2, 2003, New York resident Doug Bruce entered what’s known as a “fugue state,” in which the victim loses awareness of what he or she is doing, and got on a subway. He snapped out of it several hours later and realized he had no idea who or where he was. He had amnesia.

He had no identification on him and wasn’t dressed for the chilly morning weather. Terrified, he went to the police, who didn’t find his fingerprints in any database and turned him over to a hospital, where they could find no evidence of any physical trauma that would cause amnesia. Eventually, a phone number scrawled on a scrap of paper in Doug’s pocket led to someone who could identify him. He knew his name now, but little else.

Doug is the subject of “Unknown White Male,” a thought-provoking and highly compelling documentary made by his long-time friend Rupert Murray. Doug, a handsome and slightly cocky British man in his early 30s, was a successful stock broker before quitting the rat race to become a photographer. He and his mates always had a video camera around, so filming the process of helping Doug rediscover himself was a natural idea for Murray. It seemed to come naturally to Doug, too, even when he didn’t remember who he was: Once he was claimed from the hospital by Nadine, a woman he dated briefly whose mother’s phone number was in his pocket, it wasn’t long before he had a video camera in his hands.

Murray narrates the film, which combines new interview footage with material shot in 2003 and 2004 by Murray and by Mr. Forgetful himself. He begins by asking the question that will provide the film’s central theme: “How much of our personality is determined by our experiences … and how much is already there — pure ‘us’?”

Doug is reunited first with his father and sisters, then with his old group of friends in England. Think of the psychology involved here. His loved ones have fond memories of Doug and strong attachments to him. But Doug feels nothing for them. You’re stuck with your family, I suppose, but you remain close to your friends largely because of shared experiences and common memories. Without those, what reason is there to be friends?

They notice changes in Doug, too. Home video footage of the group of friends when they were affluent 20-somethings carousing through Europe shows Doug to be, well, kind of a jerk. With his memory gone, he doesn’t have the same edge he once had, in both good and bad ways. He seems different somehow — Doug, but not quite Doug.

Murray is not an expert filmmaker, but he tells his friend’s (and his own) very personal story with a skill that goes beyond the basic “film him doin’ stuff and see what happens.” Through interviews with friends and family, Murray paints an absorbing, even haunting picture of one life wiped away and a new one begun. What if you had to start over? Could you create a new world for yourself? And once you had done it, would you even want the old one back?

B+ (1 hr., 28 min.; PG-13, one F-word (but no other profanity), and some drug references.)