In 1980, nineteen-year-old Robert "Bobby" Shafran drove himself in his Volvo to his new college and on arrival, he got out of the car and started his walk across the campus, a place he had never been before. He noticed everyone was incredibly friendly, saying hi, clapping him on the back - he even received hugs from some of the girls and wasn't sure why until he entered the dorms and someone looked at him, amazed. He soon found out why when he was asked if he had a brother, replied "no", then was asked about his birthday... but how did this guy he'd never met before know his birth date? It was then he suggested there was someone he really needed to talk to - his long-lost twin.
The surprises didn't end there in British director Tim Wardle's documentary, one of a number of the form that revitalised them for the twenty-first century, and got audiences seriously considering attending the films in the cinema rather than watching them at home on television, as the idea they could be just as entertaining as fiction movies took hold. Not only entertaining, but shocking too in this case, a tale that started out like a wonderful surprise to make you go "Fancy that!" and marvel on life's little coincidences, yet by the end had turned into a disturbing story of lives manipulated and in many ways ruined by a mystery Wardle was not able to entirely clear up by the end.
Being aware that there was no conclusion to the film shouldn't put you off, however, if anything it made this all the more fascinating, and the injustice inescapable. You will be forgiven for feeling very angry by the point the credits had rolled, once the initial amazement and deep concern had just about settled in. That some people are put on this Earth for what could have been the soulless amusement of others was a topic not often considered in documentaries, more often in fiction really, but here was a yarn that could have been the inspiration for some kind of science fiction thriller - or horror, and indeed it was mirrored in actual books, movies and TV episodes.
At its heart, and it did have a very big heart for these brothers, it was a tragedy of a family torn apart, brought together, then finding their entire existence has been a lie that hid the most important elements from them, elements that could have helped them cope with some severe issues that were only exacerbated once they were brought back together. It's not too much of a spoiler to say that once Bobby had been reunited with his twin Eddy, the news coverage revealed even more when a triplet came to light, David, and soon they were the toast of New York, never mind the national news outlets that lapped up a story that had human interest and reaffirmed your faith in human nature. They became celebrities - Madonna insisted they had a joint cameo in Desperately Seeking Susan, for instance.
But human nature was what was under the metaphorical microscope, and Wardle intelligently seeded the narrative with ominous foreshadowing that you would only pick up on once the twists themselves arrived, if it's not too reductive to call the revelations twists. You may be ahead of the film if you've ever heard of novelty reports of long-separated siblings who are brought together and discover there are remarkable similarities about their lives, from their personal tastes to the people they formed relationships with to basic details that they share. But Three Identical Strangers goes further, pondering on the nature versus nurture debate and wondering if it's better these reports stay as novelties than what happened here, not only to Bobby, Eddy and David, either. The coldness of what was actually going on, which even now is not wholly transparent, will take you aback if you have any feeling for these charismatic brothers at all, or anyone who has been extensively manipulated for harrowing motives. One of the gems of the documentary renaissance. Music by Paul Saunderson.
[The 22nd UK International Jewish Film Festival takes place between 8th-22nd November 2018 at cinemas across London, Manchester, Leeds and Glasgow. Three Identical Strangers is part of that festival. Click this link for more information.]