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Genius Products presents
Unknown White Male (2005)

"How much of our past lives, the thousands of moments we experience, help to make us who we are? If you took all of these rememberences, these memories away, what would be left?"
- Rupert Murray

Review By: Ross Johnson  
Published: September 05, 2006

Stars: Doug Bruce, Rupert Murray
Director: Rupert Murray

MPAA Rating: PG-13 for drug references and strong language
Run Time: 01h:28m:00s
Release Date: September 05, 2006
UPC: 796019795395
Genre: documentary

Image Transfer
Audio Transfer

DVD Review

The documentary Unknown White Male has not been entirely free of controversy with regard to its veracity. While the outlines of the debate are somewhat vague, it seems that there have been some who have raised strong questions as to whether or not the events described in the film actually happened, perhaps due to their extraordinary nature. Though I don't find much reason to doubt the filmmakers here, I mention this because it's impossible to watch without the doubters in mind. I mention it also to get it out of the way: in fact, I found the film thoroughly fascinating, in a way that wouldn't be impacted much by a revelation that they made it all up.

In 2003, a man named Doug Bruce found himself riding a New York subway train with absolutely no memory of who he was, where he lived, or who his friends or family were. He was carrying no identification, just a knapsack full of items that proved to be of very little help. Doug's straightforward description of that particular morning is chilling: suddenly riding alone through an unfamiliar city with no money, no friends, and no safe place to go. It's a difficult scenario to imagine, but Doug and director Rupert Murray (actually an old friend of Doug's) make Doug's fear and disorientation real enough. The doctors who examine him after he turns himself in to the police find no physical cause, although a hint on a scrap of paper in his backpack is enough to help him reconnect with his life as it had been. With no recovery of his memories in sight, the question then becomes: how much of the “old” Doug remains, now that a lifetime of experiences have been stripped away?

The biographical scenario of this film will remind some, perhaps, of Memento, wherein a trauma victim loses the ability to form new memories. I was reminded, instead, of Dark City. In that movie, aliens strip away the memories of human test subjects in an attempt to determine if we are more than the sum of our memories and our remembered experiences. Is there an essential "us" that persists even without the benefit of our lives as we have lived them? That's what Murray gets at here. It's an unanswerable question, but Doug's tale is as good a basis for an exploration as we'll likely ever encounter.

Doug is gradually reintroduced to his family, to his friends, to the fragments of his life. He retains only some procedural memory: how to swim, how to sign his name, so every encounter with an old friend is, for Doug, a meeting with a stranger. He searches through his stored possessions, not recognizing them but instead valuing their tangibility: unlike the fickleness of memory, these items are solid and inarguable. It's not only his personal life, though, that Doug has to relearn. It's everything: history, art, philosophy, even the feel of the ocean—Doug gets to live life seeing everything for the first time. As he establishes a new life for himself at odd tangents with his old, he gets to pick and choose the best of both, and I found myself wondering if he was even particularly fond of the person that he couldn't remember having ever been.

Rupert Murray's film is artfully directed, and consistently manages to get to the nub of Doug's situation. The clinical details of Doug's experience aren't the story here, as they might have been in other hands. Unknown White Male zeroes in on what makes Doug's story so intriguing. Are we more than the sum of our life experiences? Who would I be, who would you be, without memories?

Rating for Style: A
Rating for Substance: A


Image Transfer

Aspect Ratio1.33:1 - Widescreen
Original Aspect Ratioyes

Image Transfer Review: For a documentary, much of which is re-purposed home video footage, Unknown White Male looks great. Colors are bright and contrast is sharp. There's some unavoidable inconsistency resulting from the various sources used to pull together the finished movie. Still, even the camcorder footage looks better than it has any right to. Very little to complain about.

Image Transfer Grade: A


Audio Transfer

 LanguageRemote Access
Dolby Digital

Audio Transfer Review: As with the video transfer, the audio is quite well done. The 5.1 Dolby mix makes fine use of the rear channels for music and in conversations to create depth. And, as with the image transfer, even the home video footage sounds pretty good. Nice job all around.

Audio Transfer Grade: A-


Disc Extras

Static menu
Scene Access with 12 cues and remote access
1 Original Trailer(s)
6 Other Trailer(s) featuring American Gun, Lonesome Jim, Dear Wendy, The Beat That My Heart Skipped, Yo Soy Boricua, Wordplay
1 Deleted Scenes
5 Featurette(s)
Packaging: Amaray
Picture Disc
1 Disc
1-Sided disc(s)
Layers: dual

Extras Review: There are several extras on the disc. While they're all pretty short, they collectively do a pretty good job of expanding on the issues raised in the film.

First is Visualizing Memory: Making of Unknown White Male. Running a whopping 11 minutes, this is the longest of the various extras. It's much better than a standard EPK, although it's actually more of an introduction to the director than an actual making-of.

Next, The Original Sand Dune Sequence is a different edit of the climactic sequence of the film. They're pretty similar, but the final version in the film works better.

In The Man Before Amnesia: Interview with Friends, Doug's friends discuss his personality prior to amnesia. Not really necessary, but interesting nonetheless.

The Experts: Extended Interviews, is exactly as it sounds; it contains expanded interview segments with the doctors featured in the film. There's a bit of new information here, but not much.

Where Is He Now is a discussion between Doug and director Rupert Murray. In spite of its title, there's very little catching up. Instead, the old friends discuss how the film came to be made and why Doug chose Rupert to document his experiences.

Finally, Questions with the Director and Producer takes place in a crowded auditorium after a screening of the documentary. This is where the gentlemen address questions regarding the veracity of the film, and attempt to put them to bed.

Extras Grade: B


Final Comments

Amnesia in movies is normally a soap-opera condition. In real life, a complete loss of past memories is exceedingly rare. This look at the life of Doug Bruce is fascinating not just for that reason, but also for the philosophical window it opens: who are we without the guidance of our experiences? Rupert Murray's film is well and thoughtfully directed, and the DVD boasts fine picture and sound quality. The extras, while all brief, address many of the questions that linger from the film. Overall, this is a very nice presentation.


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