A word of warning – Tell Me Who I Am is not for the faint-hearted. It’s one of those documentaries where you will need to pause, reflect and comprehend the magnitude of the information that floods the screen. Some of it sounds too incredible to believe, but like all good documentaries we’ve seen this year, arguably its golden era as we’re experiencing right now, the power of the human story still grabs our attention and sparks a much-needed conversation about the society we live in. Because truth can be stranger than fiction, and nothing can quite prepare you for the incredible human story that both Alex and Marcus Lewis share – identical twins connected by birth yet devastatingly pulled apart by a family secret. And what starts as a simple story, becomes a Pandora’s Box of unearthed secrets and jaw-dropping revelations.
Based on the co-written book by Alex and Marcus of the same name, that ‘false sense of security’ and tonal change is nothing new, especially if you’re familiar with Three Identical Strangers and Netflix’s Abducted in Plain Sight. But that is not to the detriment of what Tell Me Who I Am achieves.
Being deliberately cautious in not revealing its spoilery secrets, Ed Perkin’s directorial effort deserves to be seen with as little knowledge as possible besides the basic, need to know facts. Alex Lewis was involved in a motorcycle accident in 1982. After suffering brain damage, he wakes up at the hospital only to recognise his brother Marcus and no-one else – not his mother, his father, his girlfriend, his close friends, not even his own name. He had the mental age of a nine-year-old. His memory was completely gone.
I can’t begin to imagine what it’s like to not have your memories, how scary that would feel if suddenly years of your life was taken away in an instant. Alex compares it to total darkness; Perkins’ stylish direction can’t personally relate but creates a visual experience full of black slates and soft palettes that articulates the immediate emptiness and confusion that Alex feels. And what begins as the first of three chapters through reconstructions and nostalgic childhood photographs, is a fascinating exploration about memory and its coping mechanisms, having to re-learn everything and solely relying on his brother to help rebuild his life in the process.
Trust is the pivotal word. From family life to holidays, Alex took everything at face value and had photographs shown by Marcus to help reinforce his understanding. There are occasional moments of levity where Marcus would give Alex a ‘ten-minute pep talk’ before dinner with friends so his brother wouldn’t feel overwhelmed at seeing a total stranger.
From early on, Tell Me Who I Am does an impeccable job in building the ‘hidden in plain sight’ motivations. It crafts an applicable notion about fantasy and the life we imagine we could/should be living. There’s a relatable line about education through television, embracing all of its perfection and what a ‘normal’ family looked like. Through Alex’s naivety, we as the audience use him as a gateway, even when things start to venture to places where it doesn’t make sense – the £50 notes stuffed in curtains and jars, the Christmas presents hidden in secret cupboards, the closed-off yet stern father who the brothers had to address as ‘sir’, off-limit areas of the family home they were not allowed to go in, the fun-loving mother and most importantly, Marcus’s cold reaction to it all.
Marcus’s reaction is essential, and as act two begins, the perspective switches and the context (and all of its graphic detail) is finally laid out.
Once the penny drops, you realise how the documentary carefully subverts its narrative, expecting for it to head in a specific direction, before pulling the emotional rug from underneath you to divert its course. There’s no escaping how upsetting it is, reminding me of the similar reaction I had to Gillian Flynn/HBO miniseries Sharp Objects. Both approach their subject matter with an uncomfortable visceral intent that becomes physically and emotionally impossible not to feel moved by it all.
It also marks an apt discussion about mental health and how we process trauma, particularly with young men. Crucially to its understanding, not once does Perkins positions the documentary to be a one-sided affair for blame and guilt. It’s a catch-22 scenario, showcasing how complicated and messy that carries through the emotional distraught that afflicted both men. Considering how both Alex and Marcus navigated Alex’s memory loss where their friends didn’t even know about it, the documentary places its audience in their shoes to ask, what would you have done if you were in the same situation. For Alex, he wanted and deserved the truth. For Marcus, it’s a reluctance to face the truth. It’s a guilt that weighed heavily on him for over twenty years instilling a purpose-built rationalisation that he was showing his brother mercy. Empathetically, both arguments are weighted equally.
The direction could have taken a different turn, delving into the traditional investigative model by building an intricate maze of conspiracy theories and suspects that Making a Murderer thrived upon. Instead, Tell Me Who I Am takes its heartbreaking revelation and focuses on its raw, personal and emotional confrontation ahead of its third and final act. Stagey? Perhaps, but then again, it refuses to shy away from the truth with a chance to come face-to-face with it, which is a rarity in itself.
You get the feeling that there’s more to the story with some of its detail hazy or the documentary lens pulling back just at the precise moment when you want to learn more. Perhaps, it’s still too difficult to come to terms with, or the brothers simply do not know what its significance is – trapped in history and lost in time. Maybe their novel has more information that the documentary couldn’t fit into its well-constructed narrative. But Tell Me Who I Am is upfront and honest about its cathartic focus – this is about healing from a traumatic experience to find peace and a reclaimed identity.
Through poignancy and grace, it’s an intimate portrait of human behaviour and all of the tools we use to survive the harshness of our reality, leaving us with the faint hope of recovery and reconciliation. But as a captivating watch throughout, Tell Me Who I Am reminds you of the power of the documentary, serving up one of the best of the year.
TELL ME WHO I AM screened as part of the BFI’s London Film Festival 2019. For screening details and ticket availability, please visit their website for more details. Released on Netflix 18th October.