I know that I need to see a lot more documentaries in the cinema. I think that, on a whole, I can count on one hand the number of documentaries I’ve seen in the cinema. Part of that is the way documentaries are released in the UK, with it being common for high profile ones like Senna and The Beatles: Eight Days a Week: The Touring Years to only be released in cinemas for one day. The independent cinemas though do show documentaries for longer than a day, and that was the case here, with The Electric in Birmingham showing Three Identical Strangers. Based on the trailers, the story was fascinating and I wanted to understand more about it, I wasn’t prepared for a film as powerful as this, and it is probably my film of the year.
The film tells the story of Edward Galland, David Kellman and Bobby Shafran, a set of identical twins, all of whom were adopted who, after a chance encounter Bobby has with friends of Edward, find out about each others existence. Whilst there is initial jubilation over the three finding out that they have brothers they never knew existed, there is the running thread of what exactly happened that led to the boys being split up in the first place, with it being revealed that the boys were part of an experiment which deliberately separated identical twins as a study of nature vs nurture. Now there is a lot of power and weight to the film through the exploration of how the study impacted the boys, the memories they have of it, even if they didn’t understand the context, and the issues of mental illness that the boys had when first separated (i.e. separation anxiety) and how they were always plagued by mental health issues, being in and out of psychiatric hospital and one of them suffering from manic depression. What was done to the boys was unquestionably wrong, and the fact that there may still be twins or triplets that are part of the study that don’t know that they are even twins is horrifying.
This also hit me on a more personal level. For those of you who don’t know, I am a twin, and I did take part in studies relating to twins up until a few years ago, with the tests I completed as part of that being similar to those the boys here completed. The difference though is that I was always aware of it, I was paid to take part (usually with gift vouchers) and my brother always took part in them with me, and it was always with my permission. The idea that there are twins who would have taken part in studies without their permission and not even knowing about it is horrific and disturbed me on a personal level. This is even more personal for me since I am an non-identical twin, meaning that if I was ever separated (which I know would never have happened), there is a strong likelihood that I would never know my brother, even if I was talking to him face to face, so I connected with the triplets and this resulted in one of the most personal film going experiences I’ve had in a long time.
But the film is not fully depressing. It understands that there would be a sense of jubilation finding out that you have a brother, and the interviews the brothers give and the use of home videos, interviews and other footage is excellent, highlighting how similar they were, not just in appearance but in body language. The repetition of the footage meanwhile allows you to see the subtle differences with the brothers, deliberately highlighting the most obvious similarities, like the news and interviews did at first, but making you see the smaller details every time the footage is repeated.
This is all part of the excellent editing of the film, using the right combination of footage for foreshadowing and doing a similar technique to what Bart Layton did in The Imposter (I know others will have done it first, but Layton is the more relevant one in this instance) with using re-enactments with the interviews the brothers gave played over it to create a sense of what it must have been like at the time. Through all of this, it allows fresh context to be provided to every single clip and interview whenever we see them again, and is an excellent approach to take for a documentary, giving it a great cinematic feel.
Overall, Three Identical Strangers is one of the most personally impactful films for me I’ve seen in a long time. Being a twin who took part in similar studies to the triplets here (albeit with my consent and without being separated), I connected with their story in a way that other people may not. Even taking away the personal connection, this is still a powerful story, the full extent of which I daren’t spoil here, with some of the most impactful editing of a documentary I’ve seen since probably Senna. This is a true example of the cinematic power of documentaries.
My Rating: 5/5