During a late night editing session for Unknown White Male, director Rupert Murray had an epiphany: film editing perfectly mimics the human memory. ‘Rushes are our day-to-day experiences,’ he explains. ‘When you make a cut, the first thing you select is the most memorable moment. You build a scene around that, but it’s not an exact replica of what happened, only the feeling or spirit. The details are lost, just like when your memories recede into the background and you lose all the detailed information and just retain the essence of what happened.’ Soon, similar correlations were also realized, like how Super 8 feels like memories because it’s shot like them – in fragmented visual bursts that last only a few seconds.
It’s understandable why memories and their application to the minutia of everyday life have been crowding the corners of Murray’s mind lately. Just how much our history determines who we are, what we do and how we do things are the dilemmas at the heart of Unknown White Male, a fascinating feature doc that follows Doug Bruce for one year after a rare form of amnesia erases all 37 years of his life. The film premiered in the World Documentary Competition section at the Sundance Film Festival in January, and by February theatrical and tv rights for North America had been split between Court TV and N.Y.-based Wellspring for the handsome sum of US$650,000.
The director and his subject were old friends before July 3, 2003 when Bruce found himself on a New York subway near Coney Island suddenly clueless as to who or where he was, and their shared history prevents the film from becoming too cerebral. It also gave Murray license to explore his own memories within the film, as well as the shared memories of a generation. The result is a doc that takes risks visually, structurally and emotionally to a huge pay-off. ‘I went to art school, so I’ve always been interested in the visual and creative side of documentaries, but you don’t get the opportunity to practice it in the majority of stories,’ says Murray, who founded the London-based prodco Spectre Broadcast in 2003 with Unknown producer Beadie Finzi. ‘That’s the stuff that usually hits the cutting room floor,’ he continues. ‘But on this film, because of the subject matter, all of the interesting artistic stuff means something in the story. That’s the critical thing and that’s why it works.’
The doc successfully integrates classic talking head interviews with a Harvard memory expert (who explains why Bruce could remember how to speak French, but didn’t know who his family was or what chocolate tastes like) with montages, recreations, home videos, stock footage from nasa and Tourism Australia, as well as Bruce’s own video diary, which he started shooting the day after he was identified. It also moves smoothly between various formats, including Super 8, Hi-8, Super 16 and HD.
‘We took a gamble that this film was going to travel beyond the realms of television, so I made the decision to shoot on HD,’ says Murray, who credits Jess Search for raising ambitions for the project. Search commissioned the film for Channel 4 at the beginning of 2004 and later joined the project as executive producer. Still, the move to hd was bold on a TV budget; Finzi estimates the camera rental, stock and transfers account for 80% of the budget even though Murray reduced costs by using standard def lenses.
Post Sundance, the project continues to raise ambitions. ‘The film really opened my eyes to the potential of a good story – how far you can go with it, how far you can take an audience. I’m fired up to take on some of the themes in this film and expand them into other films,’ says Murray.
Not that Unknown is finished. The director admits the Sundance cut isn’t the final version. He would like to add a few scenes and try to solve the medical mystery behind Bruce’s condition. ‘I want to put in a little more art and a little more science,’ he says. And although Bruce still doesn’t have his memory back, there’s a good chance it will return one day. ‘If his memory returns, it would be fascinating to know how the old and the new interact – what parts of his old life he looks at and likes, and how he sees the world,’ says Murray. In other words, it would be a perfect end to the story. Or an excellent reason for a special edition DVD.