Posts Tagged ‘Three Identical Strangers’

It almost feels like the Golden Age of Documentaries we were living through a few years ago has ended – I do seem to recall that I was going to see something like Blackfish, The Imposter, Searching for Sugar Man, or Project Nim pretty much on a weekly basis at one point, but of course the memory cheats and it was more like one more-or-less unmissably brilliant documentary every few months. Still, that’s one every few months, as opposed to the one or two a year that currently snags my attention. Is there a deeper significance to this? Well, having given serious and lengthy thought to this, my main conclusion is: I don’t know.

Seeing a good documentary film does have its own special pleasures, of course, not least because most of these films are more interesting and surprising than mainstream narrative cinema. The stories have to have some kind of surprising quality to them, simply because they wouldn’t be noteworthy enough to have a film made about them otherwise. The ‘it has to be true because no-one would make up something so unbelievable’ quality is there in full effect in Three Identical Strangers, directed by Tim Wardle.

In 1980, a young man from New York named Robert Shafran drove up to college for the first time; understandably a little nervous, he was startled by the warmth of the reception he received from the other students there – handshakes, hugs, and kisses. The reason for this soon became apparent – another student, who had attended the college the previous year, was Shafran’s exact double. It turned out that Shafran and the other boy, Eddie Galland, had both been adopted and shared the same birthday. In a state of excitement and disbelief, Shafran drove to Galland’s house and the two brothers were reunited for the first time since they were babies.

But the story got even more amazing. The tale of the long-lost twin brothers naturally attracted a lot of media attention in the New York area, and some of it reached the family of David Kellman, another nineteen-year-old boy who bore an astonishing resemblance to Shafran and Galland. Naturally, he made himself known to the families of the other two boys (‘Oh my God, they’re coming out of the woodwork’ was the response of one family member).

The three boys were indeed triplets (actually the three surviving members of a group of quads, the fourth of whom died in infancy, but the film skips over this), and when they came together the bond between them was obvious to everyone around. Minor celebrity in the New York area beckoned, with various magazine covers, chat show appearances, and so on (the triplets actually have walk-on parts in Desperately Seeking Susan, where they get to ogle Madonna for a moment). It seems like a charming and delightful story of a family coming back together through the most unlikely of circumstances.

However, it is not long before the film begins to touch on much darker issues, and the many unexplained questions surrounding the story. The main one being: why were none of the adoptive families told that their new sons were part of a group of triplets who were being raised separately? Who made the decision to separate them, and why? And were all the remarkable coincidences and parallels in their upbringings really just coincidence, or was there a more calculating influence at work?

Distribution duties for Three Identical Strangers are being handled by Dogwoof, who specialise in this sort of thing: this is the same company who were in charge of the UK releases of several of the other documentaries which have most impressed me in recent years, particularly Blackfish and Life, Animated. And so, even though these films are made independently of each other, it’s not much of a surprise that they share a good many features in common: none of them have a narrator as such, telling the story wholly through the testimony of the people involved and using archive footage, and using an arresting human interest story to explore wider issues.

And all that is true of this film, too. It does very much feel as if this has been crafted as a narrative in its own right, with the story presented in a way guaranteed to achieve maximum impact. Initially it is all about the shock and incredulity of everyone surrounding the triplets as they first became aware of each other, and the cheery craziness that ensued, with only the fact that only two of them are contributing their parts of the story to suggest that this story will eventually go to some very dark places. The volta, when it comes, is startling, and takes the film into places which almost lead it to resemble an episode of The X Files for a while: shadowy political bodies lurk on the fringes of the story, unethical scientific experiments are described by cheerfully unrepentant researchers, and so on.

It is, by any metric, a remarkable and moving story, and the film’s handling of it is mostly very good – everyone involved gets their chance to put their side of it across, even if in a few cases this means some of the contributors are given plenty of rope and invited to fashion their own noose. On the other hand, you could probably argue that this narrative is just a bit too orchestrated – it’s not quite as bad as Sonita, in which the documentary film-makers basically became a part of their own story, but it almost bears comparison with the way in which the makers of Searching for Sugar Man presented the story in a highly selective way so it would have maximum impact on the audience. In the case, the fact that (prior to their reunion) one of the triplets was briefly implicated in a murder (no charges were brought) is held back until it suits the film’s thesis, to which it is relevant; there are other examples.

I suppose it comes down to whether you think that documentary film-making is about crafting a narrative for the greatest possible effect on the audience, or simply trying to present the facts as objectively as possible. Certainly I think there is a case to be made for both approaches, and a balance to be struck. Three Identical Strangers works very well from both points of view – where I think it starts to struggle a bit is when it attempts to address more abstract issues concerning the competing influences of nature and nurture. This is quite philosophical territory and none of the film’s contributors really have much to offer that you could honestly call profound. It’s certainly less compelling than the story of the triplets and the truth about their lives. Nevertheless, this is another very accomplished documentary which is as involving and surprising as the best studio thriller; well worth a look.

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