FIB Film Review: Three Identical Strangers

The film this documentary reminded me of the most was Tickled, the 2016 effort where kiwi filmmaker David Farrier delved into the strange world of competitive tickling and wasn’t prepared for how dark and dangerous such a seemingly innocuous subject would turn.

The surreal, sad story behind the acclaimed new doc 'Three Identical  Strangers' - Los Angeles Times
Photo Credit: Los Angeles Times

This film does the same thing. Starting as a genuine and sweet curiosity, the affable Bobby Shafran goes to an upstate New York college where everyone seems to know and really like him even though he’s never been there before. He discovers that a guy who looks exactly like him, Eddy Galland, went there the year before, and when he manages to contact the adopted identical twin he never knew it’s a pretty amazing story in itself.

When a third guy, David Kellman, sees the two guys in the paper because of the ensuing publicity and he looks exactly like them too, it goes from amazing to incredible. The three are triplets, separated at birth by an adoption agency and sent to very different homes.

Bobby, David and Eddy become inseparable, wearing their similarities on their sleeves and revelling in then, becoming fixtures on TV and New York social circles in the mid to late 90s, all of it a feelgood story for the ages.

And the darker aspects of the brothers’ story might never have come to light apart from the mental illnesses they all struggled with behind the publicity friendly facades of their lives.

Investigative journalist Lawrence Wright decided to look into the case behind their adoption, and it turned out a meeting one rainy night at the offices of the adoption agency took a dark turn. All three sets of the boys’ adoptive parents visited the place to demand to know why none of them were told about the other boys, were given a bland explanation and sent on their way. It’s only when one of them realises he’s left an umbrella in the meeting room that he returns to see them toasting each other with champagne.

It’s then you have visions of Josef Mengele and human experimentation, really hoping it’s not the case because we’re dealing with the lives of three real men who have been through a lot of suffering, not a Hollywood thriller.

Desperately Seeking Susan: Triplets | Desperately seeking susan, Madonna,  Documentaries
Triplets with Madonna | Photo Credit: Pinterest

But it turns out they were indeed the subjects of a human trial of some sort – after we’re finished with the happy smiles, loving brotherhood and TV cameras Bobby and David recall strange visits to their houses as kids by mysterious adults who quizzed them on their lives and abilities.

The rest of the film digs deeper into the background of what’s apparently been going on, but if you’re after clear answers you won’t find them, the secret having apparently gone to the graves of people involved or buried under mountains of legalese and paperwork. You’re waiting the entire time to hear the CIA or KGB was ultimately behind the whole thing, but it never gets that far.

As such, there’s a scene that feels like kind of a small aside but which was actually the crux of the whole thing from an anthropological perspective. As far as Wright found out, the study was a simple case of nurture versus nature, intended to see if the natures of people with identities as close to identical as we have (ie identical siblings) can be swayed by different upbringings.

As the investigation found, the families the three boys are placed with were carefully selected for their socioeconomic differences. And to the extent the film reveals it (although a peer reviewed conclusion was never published), they did actually get an answer. But the fact that three living breathing people suffered through so much to get it is the topic of the whole film – the human cost, not the intended findings.

It’s a pretty amazing story anyway, and director Tim Wardle does a very good job using historical footage and straight to camera interviews with today’s David and Bobby to construct a story that’s peeled back by layers, turning into something different and much darker than you expect.

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