February: Three Identical Strangers

“Uncanny Familiarity”

Christie Milliken (Brock University)

The summer of 2018 marked a banner year for popular documentary with three feature-length films each grossing over $10 million in their theatrical release; Won’t You Be My Neighbor (Morgan Neville), RBG (Julie Cohen and Betsy West), and the film that is the focus of this discussion, Three Identical Strangers (Tim Wardle), which opened in June and has since earned over $12 million domestically (Box Office Mojo). Three Identical Strangers was, like RBG, produced with funding from CNN’s motion picture division (as well as Channel 4), though different distributors were behind their theatrical roll-outs. It is worth noting that Courtney Sexton, VP of CNN Films, came to the network in 2013 after eight successful years at Participant Media where she oversaw the promotion of other popular theatrically-released documentaries such as Food, Inc. (Robert Kenner, 2008) and An Inconvenient Truth (Davis Guggenheim, 2006).

Three Identical Strangers bears many of the hallmarks of recent popular documentaries that deploy an investigative structure aligned with the thriller genre. For example, Blackfish (Gabriela Cowperthwaite, 2013), which was also produced with CNN funding, contains many of the same formal elements: rapid fire cutting, talking heads shot from multiple perspectives, frequent migrations across locations and time, extensive use of archival footage, and frequent audio punctuation by sensation-inducing scoring and soundtracks. Other recent documentaries that could fall into the thriller “frame” are too numerous to mention here, but a shortlist certainly includes much of Errol Morris’s work (most pointedly The Thin Blue Line), as well as more recent theatrical releases including Citizen Four (Laura Poitras, 2014), The Act of Killing (Joshua Oppenheimer, 2012), Icarus (Bryan Fogel, 2017), and others.

Older viewers may have a vague memory of the media sensation that accrued around the brothers featured in Three Identical Strangers who, in 1980 at the age of 19, discovered that they were triplets, separated as infants, and adopted into three different families within a one-hundred-mile radius of one another in the New York City area. The film begins with the unfolding of this uncanny story as one of the brothers, Robert Shaffron (“Bobby,” now 56), recounts his arrival at Sullivan County Community College in upstate New York where he was greeted with familiarity and affection by a number of fellow students who referred to him as “Eddy” (his brother, Edward Galland). The film cuts nimbly between Bobby’s lively testimony and reenactment footage that stages his arrival at college, framed as a series over-the-shoulder shots (sometimes in slow motion) that offer a subjective view of his movement, interaction, and bewilderment. One of the film’s subtle techniques includes Bobby’s verbal reenactment of his initial telephone conversation with Eddy as a back and forth in which Eddy’s words (spoken by Bobby) are recorded though a telephone, thus enhancing the acoustic verisimilitude of their initial conversation. The film rapidly rehearses the story of Bobby and Eddy meeting, the media attention this garnered, and the complication (and shock) of a third brother, David Kellman, who tracked them down as a consequence of the publicity their story receives.

This and the rapid transition into multiple talking heads and a flurry of archival footage (including home movies, still photographs, media footage of the boys’ many talk show appearances, and even a brief cameo in Susan Seidelman’s Desperately Seeking Susan) takes us so quickly through the initial period of playful discovery, reunion, shock, surprise, and inquiry that it might escape many viewers’ notice that Eddy provides no contemporary testimony at all. An hour into the film we learn that Eddy committed suicide in 1993 after a protracted battle with mental illness. This is only one of the many dramatic revelations that morphs Three Identical Strangers from a story of a joyful reunion (and stranger-than-fiction incident) into a much darker and more sinister narrative. The story continues within the thriller frame eliciting, variously, anticipation, excitement and surprise, through its unravelling of information and revelation of cover-ups. Who chose to separate the triplets as infants and why? Who are the players behind this social experiment? Who is the primary antagonist? What were his motivations? What is left uncovered?

While the structure of Three Identical Strangers is not misleading per se, it is clearly invested in dramatizing the twists and turns that give the film its labyrinthine feel, shifting tonalities, and deliberatively complex temporal and narrative weave. For this, it garnered a U.S. Special Jury Award for Storytelling (italics mine) when it premiered at Sundance in 2018. It is also worth mentioning that the audio commentary on the DVD’s supplementary material includes director Tim Wardle and editor, Michel Harte, remarking on the profound influence of The Usual Suspects (Bryan Singer, 1995) in their film’s complex plotting. If the frame of popular documentary thriller that I’m advancing here seems tinged with ambivalence it comes from the view that the film seems so caught up in the creation of complex dramatic twists and reenactments, that it reads as excessive and far from subtle in its force. This story itself is dramatic enough without the noir-like flashback/reenactment of the triplets’ parents confronting the Louise Wise Adoption Agency’s Board of Directors on a dark, rainy night. On the other hand, the dramatic device of replaying certain images and observations as new information comes to light gives new meaning to these images, which makes the meanings we (may) have accepted simultaneously more illuminating and less transparent. In this regard the film reads like an intoxicating illustration of dramatic, Barthesian complex signification (“a galaxy of signifiers,” see S/Z, 5).

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On the other hand, the film might be read for the haunting quality of the punctum of the images and for the sense of loss that forms the core of the film. I’ll end here with a provocation for others to consider the ways in which this film might inspire further study of the intersections between fiction and nonfiction forms and genres, and of what Bill Nichols has called the “vivification [in documentary reenactment] in which past and present coexist in the impossible space of the fantasmatic,” a form of coexistence that he reads in relation to “lost objects and the signifiers that serve as ghosts that both haunt and endow the present with psychic intensity.” Nostalgia, desire, and loss are key themes in Three Identical Strangers. I would argue that what gets lost by placing so much emphasis on the affective experience of thriller elements may be a gain in box office for this film, but at the price of something (perhaps) much more affecting and profound.

“On the Limits of Story”

Tanya Horeck (Anglia Ruskin University)

Described in its marketing as “the most amazing, incredible, remarkable true story ever told,” there is no doubt that the story told in Three Identical Strangers – of boy triplets separated as babies and reunited as young adults – is thematically rich material for a documentarian. As much as it is a tragic, personal story of the psychological trauma endured by three identical siblings (Robert Shafran, Edward Galland, and David Hellman) as a result of their separation, the documentary is also a social history of closed adoption practices in the 1960s in New York, and a philosophical meditation on the knotty theme of “nature vs. nurture.” Three Identical Strangers is alert to the sensitivities of telling a story that is at once deeply personal and biblical in its proportions, and British director Tim Wardle has spoken of the “duty of care” he felt in taking on the project. And yet it is the wider issue of “story” in contemporary documentary filmmaking – and particularly arc-led storytelling – that I was left wondering about most after watching the film.

Three Identical Strangers is produced by Raw, the London-based production company that also made The Imposter, the 2012 documentary about another sensational “stranger-than-fiction” story in which a French man (Frederic Bourdin) impersonated a missing sixteen-year-old boy from Texas, apparently convincing the family that he was their long-lost son. In addition to certain stylistic similarities, such as the use of reenactments in which the actors lip sync dialogue spoken by the real-life documentary subjects, what links the two documentaries is an increasingly recognizable brand of arc-driven narrative storytelling with plot twists and turns. As has become standard in a range of theatrical documentaries post 2000, including Andrew Jarecki’s Capturing the Friedmans (2003) and Kurt Kuenne’s Dear Zachary (2008), key plot details are withheld from viewers in order to maximize the emotional “punch” of the documentary. Thus, while viewers may assume, by virtue of his physical absence from Three Identical Strangers, that one of the brothers, Eddy Galland, must be dead, it is just over the one hour mark of the film that we learn of his suicide by gunshot. Similarly, the fact that the boys’ adoption was part of a secret psychological experiment/study, conducted by psychoanalyst Dr. Peter Neubauer in collusion with the Louise Wise Jewish adoption agency, is initially withheld. The film raises a question mark regarding the driving motivation of the study (which has never been published): was it to determine the issue of nature vs. nurture by choosing twins and triplets whose biological parents had mental illness? It finally settles on the revelation that the study was designed to see how different kinds of parents and parenting styles impacted identical siblings. Notably, the triplets were deliberately placed into three very different families: from a working-class, middle-class, and more affluent background, respectively.

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The most powerful moments in the documentary come from the interviews with the subjects, including the now elderly aunt of David Hellman, Hedy Page. She is eloquent on the jubilation of the boys’ initial reunion as young men (they “wrestled like puppies on the floor” she says), as well as on the profound tragedy of what was lost in those years apart and how the research experiment they were unwittingly a part of meant that the three did not have “happy endings.” The pain of that deprivation is etched most deeply on Bobby Shafran’s face and it is likely for this reason that the film chooses to open with him readying himself for interview, his sad, haunted eyes staring direct into camera. Both surviving brothers are irreparably damaged by the loss of their brother (Bobby, especially, seems to suffer from survivor guilt), as well as from the knowledge that they were “lab rats” in a secret study, which remains locked away in a vault at Yale University.

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When the triplets were first feted by the media as handsome young men, it was their strong genetic resemblances and commonalities that were considered remarkable. Through interviews with the triplets and talking heads, the first part of the documentary voices the argument that much of our destiny is hereditary. And yet, as the film nears its end, the strong desire for a definitive conclusion takes over, and Three Identical Strangers turns instead to the view that our fate is ultimately more bound up in nurture. In an attempt to account for Eddy’s tragic end, the film suggests that out of the three boys, Eddy’s match with his family was the least ideal as he was placed within a disciplinary family structure that did not match his personality. It includes interviews with Eddy’s now very elderly adoptive father, who quietly reflects on his strict approach to parenting. The documentary is not unkind to Eddy’s father, and it is acknowledged that “some people are just not a good fit” with one another (wise Aunt Hedy says that “nature and nurture both matter but…nurture can overcome nearly anything”). And yet, there is still a disservice, I think, in reducing such a highly complex, multi-faceted situation to what is ultimately a rather simplistic conclusion.

In their recently published manifesto, “Beyond Story”, Alisa Lebow and Alexandra Juhasz point to the limitations of “story-driven docs” and argue that “storytelling is not the most or only effective form for documentary, as affecting as it can be.” Responding to the “‘storytelling’ [that] currently dominates the field,” Lebow’s and Juhasz’s manifesto calls on other ways to tell stories – which move beyond a focus on emotions, characters, and cause-effect logic. Watching Three Identical Strangers and reflecting on its somehow too pat conclusion, I was struck by the relevancy of this manifesto and its urging for us to move beyond the confines of “storied structures.” Trying to make as unwieldy, astonishing, and complexly layered a story as that told in Three Identical Strangers fit into a familiar storytelling narrative frame ultimately shuts down meaning at the very precise moment it should be opened up.

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