Pick of the Week: Three Identical Strangers
Surreal and surprising, Three Identical Strangers effectively questions the nature of reality and identity. This critically acclaimed documentary tells the story of three young men who, completely by accident, discover that they are triplets separated at birth.
Three Identical Strangers (Dir. Tim Wardle) is a 2018 documentary film about a set of triplet brothers who were separated at birth after being adopted by three different families. The film begins on a note of wonder and excitement. Robert Shafran explains how a would-be uneventful day of moving into his community college dorm room, became one that irrevocably changed his life forever. He discovered, out of nowhere, that he had an identical twin, Edward Galland. Just as these two reunited brothers were making sense of this incredible revelation, they found out that they actually had a third twin - David Kellman. The three young boys immediately felt a connection with each other and the novelty of their situation shocked not only the brothers themselves, but also their families as well as the media, turning them instantly into a ‘viral’ story.
As described by a common friend in the film, the story of the three brothers initially feels like a fairytale. It takes off on a high note, a combination of archival footage, dramatic re-enactments and present day interviews with friends and family recreating the wholesome and unparalleled joy the brothers had felt, on first finding each other. Their big bright smiles, easy effervescence and enthusiastic retelling of the story makes it impossible not to root for the triplets and right from the opening scene, viewers get caught up in the same thrill and curiosity around their origins which turned them into local sensations in the 80’s. The first half of the film is exuberant and joyous, all about revelling in their happiness.
As it progresses however, the film gets murkier the reality about the brothers’ separation and their consequent estrangement unfurls. The vein of the documentary changes from a fairy tale to that of a dark mystery. Like a classic whodunit building up to its climactic revelation, the film reaches a dramatic juncture where flashbacks quickly flash across the screen, violins in the background crescendo and drop suddenly, and we finally realise the shocking truth about the triplets’ past. What follows is silence, and the brothers expressing their anguish at what they discover. The rest of the film tracks the emotional and mental ramifications endured by each brother and their families. But it also delves into the causes of their separation and dabbles with various themes along the way, one of which is the age old question of ‘Nature vs Nurture.’
Are we really in control of our lives, or are we completely at the mercy of our biology? This is the universal paradox the film goes on to explore. The belief that an individual is not who they are when born, but what they eventually make of themselves, has been the central axiom of various motivational principles. It has even been romanticised in different cultural and artistic contexts. It's a question which the triplets find themselves forcibly and inseparably at the centre of and one which is important for all of us to be able understand our identity and volition in life. By this point the film has progressed from focusing just on the brothers, to the world in general. It caters to both sides of the Nature vs. Nurture argument in an attempt to reach a political and philosophical conclusion to this question, while laying bare the personal sacrifices made by the triplets’ and their families. It’s an extremely poignant and powerful part of the film because the conclusion arrived at are not only relevant for these incredible, famous triplets, but also for ordinary people like us.
The film’s progression is slow and steady, but it doesn’t feel long drawn because every new development is significant for understanding the lives of the three charming brothers. Every scene, and every person interviewed, is pertinent and essential. The fact that the film is about actual lived experience and not a fictional narrative makes it even more impactful, especially when it reaches its unexpected climax. Unusually so for a documentary film, it doesn’t end with a concrete moral solution either, but leaves us with questions. This film may be especially relevant for people interested in psychology, as it conveys the forms in which trauma manifests itself and the human impact of the social sciences. For others, it is a rousing and fascinating story about separation, identity, and loss.
Now streaming on Netflix.
Tim Wardle is a BAFTA-nominated documentary director, and Executive Producer at award-winning production company Raw. As Director, his films include Three Identical Strangers, One Killer Punch and Lifers, both for Channel 4. Tim has also worked as head of development for a number of leading UK production companies, including Century Films, Blast Films, Raw and BBC Documentaries.