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'Unknown White Male' Shows the Making of Memory

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

Here's the set up for a new documentary film: a man about 30 years old opens his eyes on the morning of July 3, 2003. He's in an almost deserted subway car, zooming through an unfamiliar neighborhood. He doesn't know where he's going or where he's come from and he suddenly realizes he doesn't know who he is. This is the story told in a new documentary called UNKNOWN WHITE MALE. Bob Mondello has our review.

BOB MONDELLO reporting:

The subway car is rushing towards Coney Island through projects, run-down concrete buildings, vacant lots, and the guy on it doesn't recognize a thing.

(Soundbite from UNKNOWN WHITE MALE)

Mr. DOUG BRUCE: I had bumps on my head, my head hurt, it was throbbing and so I thought, okay well, I'll get off at the next stop and I was in, basically I was in shorts, and flip flops and just a T-shirt. That's all I had. And a backpack and it was cold and raining.

(End Soundbite)

MONDELLO: When he got off, people were speaking Russian. He went through the backpack. Two sets of keys, some aspirin, a Spanish phrasebook. Nothing to indicate who he was. So he turned himself into the police, and after he couldn't answer any of their questions, they checked him into a psychiatric ward, where someone asked him to sign for his things.

Mr. BRUCE: I'd sort of pick of the pen and, you know, there's this sort of thing that just goes like this, and I just went, like that, and I said, look, I'm somebody, I have a signature, you know?

MONDELLO: An illegible signature. But it seemed to start with a D. Then the police found a scrap of paper in the backpack with a phone number. The woman who answered didn't know him, but her daughter did.

Unidentified Woman: They put Doug on the phone, and I immediately knew who it was. It was like every single bone in my body was so scared.

Mr. BRUCE: And she goes, Oh my God. And said, Doug? And I said, I don't know. And she said, Yeah, you're Doug. I'm coming to get you in half an hour. And you know, the relief, the sense of, you know, the belonging. I don't know.

MONDELLO: That was recorded just six days after Doug Bruce lost his memory. And while he'd finally found a woman who knew him, he still didn't know himself. He had to be reintroduced to his apartment in Manhattan, to meet his family and friends, to figure out who he was.

And who was he, if not the sum of all those experiences he could no longer remember? That's the question posed by filmmaker Rupert Murray, who had known the old Doug Bruce for nearly two decades, but who discovered when he started making this film that he didn't know the new Doug Bruce, the one who is not the sum of Doug Bruce's experiences.

Murray had home movies of the old Doug, and from those you glean that the new Doug is nicer, more contemplative, less cocky. So when a specialist says that most people with retrograde amnesia regain their memories, you wonder if that's necessarily a good thing. There's something appealing about this man/child who gets to discover everything for the first time as an adult, from the tartness of a strawberry to the rush of the surf at the beach.

Mr. BRUCE: It just felt absolutely amazing, I mean the texture of it, and then I dived in. I didn't know if I could swim. And you know, the moment I realized that I could instinctively, it was fantastic.

MONDELLO: The director keeps images flashing and musical motifs spinning so hypnotically that you can barely form the questions that you should be asking of this documentary. Like why did Doug's beautiful ex-girlfriends fly in to take care of him while his adoring family didn't? And what kind of a man rushes to the side of a friend in trouble to make a movie about him? You can't help asking those questions by the end of UNKNOWN WHITE MALE, but you'll also be pondering what the film really wants you to ponder, the question of how much of identity, of personality, of the you-ness that makes you you, is determined simply by your remembrance of things past.

I'm Bob Mondello. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.