Unknown White Male

Imagine finding yourself on the New York City subway with no recollection of how you got there. Well, OK. For those revelers who might have overindulged in their college days, maybe that isn’t such a stretch. But imagine, more seriously this time, what it would be like to all of a sudden realize you don’t know where you’re going or even who you are. This happened to a young British man featured in the 2005 documentary Unknown White Male, an eye-opening look into the mind of an amnesiac—not a comfortable place to be.

The filmmaking may not be stellar (lots of eerie filler footage, jumpy shots, and not enough explanation of the events), but the story is compelling. The director is a friend of Doug, the victim, and he decides to follow his old friend as Doug reconnects with his family and friends; the lost man is lucky enough to be “found.”

At the beginning, the narrator poses some interesting questions that guide the movie: 

“How much of our past lives, the thousands of moments we experience, helps to make us who we are? If you took all of these remembrances, these memories, away, what would be left? How much is our personality, our identity, determined by the experiences we have, and how much is already there – pure ‘us’?”

Doug has obviously changed. He is more serious, less arrogant, his friends comment. With experiences and memories no longer influencing him, he is adrift, needing to start over. This too, begs an interesting question: If you found yourself in the same situation, how would you go about recreating yourself? Would you return to your family, even if they felt no more like family than any other? How would you form new opinions and a sense of self?

Doug does return to his family and friends, feeling some connection with his sister. He finds love, creating his first set of new memories, and begins to build a new life. The cynical side of me couldn’t help but notice that in his previous life, Doug was doing OK for himself. He owned a spacious New York City apartment and had given up a lucrative job to study photography. He had perhaps more space and time than most, not to mention the financial means, to collect himself and rebuild. This and other observations has led some people to believe that the documentary was a hoax. In fact, it does seem that some things don’t add up, but I chalked that up to poor filmmaking. Who knows.

Still, I can’t imagine what it would be like to have amnesia with no support system, no place to live, no money. How would you rebuild with nothing?

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