|"Unknown White Male" is a documentary almost as mysterious as its subject, Doug Bruce, a longtime friend of the filmmaker, Rupert Murray. One day, for apparently no reason, Bruce finds myself entering a "fugue state" and, quite suddenly, is alone on a New York City subway with no memories of himself, his identity, his family or his history.
He contacts a police officer and is taken to a local emergency room. It is in the emergency room where Bruce, still well-spoken and neat in appearance, is examined. He's examined first for neurological damage, and when that is ruled out he's committed to psychiatric care and told that he will not be released until someone comes to claim him.
Eventually, hospital personnel find in Bruce's pocket a phone number to the mother of a girl he had dated briefly. While the mother is unable to identify Bruce, the girl calls the hospital and instantly recognizes the voice.
"Unknown White Male" is the first and only film to Murray's credit, and it has attracted nearly as much intrigue as Bruce himself. After being nominated for the Documentary Feature Grand Prize at the 2005 Sundance Film Festival, "Unknown White Male" became the subject of several journalistic inquiries questioning its authenticity. Is this, as Murray claims, a true story? Is it merely inspired by a similar event? Or is it perhaps an elaborate hoax? Murray's inability to explain in greater detail events in Bruce's life, and his lack of knowledge regarding Bruce despite years of friendship have fueled the fires of doubt for many journalists. Most film critics have been inclined to give Murray the benefit of the doubt, however, acknowledging that should this film be an elaborate hoax it does, on a certain level, mute the film's effectiveness.
The simple reality is it's nearly impossible to ascertain the film's authenticity. The film may be, as Murray and Bruce assert, a 21-month documenting of Bruce's journey to reconstruct his life. With a simple, straightforward approach, Murray shows Bruce reconnecting with an old girlfriend who flies in from Poland when she hears the news, becoming closer to the girl he'd dated briefly, become re-familiar with old friends and getting to know his family all over again...including becoming aware, for the second time, of his mother's death.
In reality, as a film critic it is not my job to determine the truthfulness of "Unknown White Male." While it would be a disappointing revelation to find out that this entire experience is nothing but an elaborate, manipulative hoax, it wouldn't really change the truth about this documentary.
"Unknown White Male" is an over-stylized, inappropriately histrionic and forced documentary that often feels like its intentionally trying to pluck the heart strings, but instead one hears the dull "thud" sound one gets when a wrong note is hit. While the scenes with Bruce are often poignant, they are often accompanied by too many camera tricks, color manipulations and an over-bearing musical score that plays against the film's mood. Bruce's story is a powerful one, and had Murray trusted the story enough to avoid the tricks, images and sounds he feels compelled to over-utilize, "Unknown White Male" would have been one of 2006's best documentaries. Instead, it is merely one of the most controversial.
Being an individual myself for whom there are pockets of blank memories from my childhood, I find myself willing to believe that this story is the true story of Doug Bruce, constructed to the best of their ability by Bruce and filmmaker Rupert Murray. Unfortunately, a powerful and inspirational story is hindered by the over-zealous filmmaking techniques of a first-time director. The end result is that Doug Bruce, the "Unknown White Male" of the film's title, remains unknown even to the audience at the film's end.
"Unknown White Male" is a story you will always remember, but a film you will soon forget.