Rupert Murray

The Unknown White Male director tells all. Well, almost all.

At SIFF last year, I had plenty of doubts about the veracity of Unknown White Male (see review), but director Rupert Murray had already developed a ready series of answers and explanations to skeptics for the film's debut at Sundance. There, it should be noted, HBO's documentary division passed on the flick. And London papers have reported that Murray met with subject Doug Bruce, an old friend, three months prior to his episode of amnesia. So while speaking with Murray during his recent Seattle visit, I considered shaking him by the lapels and slapping the real story out of him, but how was one more denial going to make news? So we talked about other matters—like the startling variety of film and video formats he used. "The formats mirror in a sense how we remember things," says Murray. "The timeline of our autobiographical past—it's a patchwork of different experiences. Some are very sharp and clear like video, and in some the memories are fractured, fragmented, and atmospheric. [The film] gained a metaphor through its making. I thought the closer I got the viewer to the experience of losing one's memory, getting inside Doug's head, the more powerful the film would be, the more they would take away from it, vicariously experiencing the epiphanies Doug experienced." And yet this subjective approach is nothing like Bruce's coolly framed photographs, which we see in the movie. "Doug's work and mine are diametrically opposed in terms of style. His are very well composed, detailed, and fine. Mine is more scatty, homemade, and rough around the edges. I have a home-movie style . . . [which] naturally lends itself to the topic of amnesia and memory. It's suggesting past experiences." Is that also how the brain works? "Synapses are like pixels," according to Murray. "A lot of memories are images—a picture, a sound, an emotion. The strange thing about his particular type of amnesia is there is an upside. . . . It is basically a rebirth, seeing the world for the first time. Childhood memories we don't remember, swimming in the sea for the first time. Being able to fast-forward through that while having the language skills of a 35-year-old. And being able to see them for what they actually are—the warmth, the textures, and being able to describe that. That was the most exciting part of what happened." Which isn't exactly a tragic outcome for Bruce or the movie? "I think on balance he's gained more than he's lost. Which is quite a shocking thing to say. The question of the film is: If you lost your memory, would you want it back? In his case, no. On balance. Can you live without your past? Surprisingly, he can. Although it's difficult for the first couple of months."

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