Almost invariably, the most important element of a good documentary is fascinating subject matter, and Tim Wardle unquestionably zeroed in on that with Three Identical Strangers. Chronicling the startling history of Robert Shafran, Edward Galland and David Kellman, triplets separated at birth who grew up oblivious to one another’s existence, the film starts out like a jaunty sitcom, featuring three likable lugs with toothy grins who might have stepped off the set of Welcome Back, Kotter. They look like they were cloned from Andy Samberg. But as the euphoria of reconnection subsides and disconcerting questions begin to arise, a mystery freighted with disturbing ethical violations unfolds in its place.
Bobby Shafran was 19 when he drove a beat-up car he referred to affectionately as “The Old Bitch” to a community college in the Catskills in 1980. Upon arrival, he was surprised to encounter numerous people slapping him on the back and high-fiving him, the kind of effusive greetings usually reserved for an old friend. Things got even more confusing when fellow students started calling him Eddie. It turned out that Eddie had left the college the previous year, and only when one of his buddies asked Bobby if he was adopted did the pieces begin to fall into place.
A reunion followed in Long Island, where Newsday ran the quirky human-interest story and made the twin brothers instant tabloid stars. When the New York Post picked up the story, third sibling David instantly saw himself in the photo of two guys “with hands like baseball mitts.” He orchestrated a next-phase reunion to complete the picture at the home of his Aunt Hedy, who’s among the livelier, more insightful commentators on the triplets’ bizarre history. She describes the three of them meeting for the first time and soon ending up “wrestling like puppies on the floor.”
Naturally, the media ate it up, with talk-show appearances and interviews pointing up their shared tastes in Marlboros, cars and older women. They were a viral sensation in the pre-internet days, plastered all over magazines and regularly spotted at the top nightclubs of the time — Studio 54, Limelight, the Copacabana. They even landed an iconic movie cameo, ogling Madonna, who does a double take at the three curbside lookalikes in Desperately Seeking Susan. Their celebrity led to them opening a SoHo steakhouse, which had a wildly successful first year.
Tracing their origin was relatively easy. They were born at the Long Island Jewish Medical Center and placed with families by Louise Wise Services, then the preeminent New York adoption agency for Jewish children. All six adoptive parents of the boys went to the agency in 1980 for answers, and when one father returned after a meeting for a forgotten umbrella, he was surprised to find the senior administrators cracking open champagne, “as if they’d dodged a bullet.” Eddie was the driving force behind tracing their biological mother, turning up only a sad tale of a “prom-night knock-up.”
Closer acquaintances revealed that the boys had grown up in quite different home environments: one affluent, one middle-class, one blue-collar. Bobby’s father was a doctor; Eddie’s a teacher; and David’s an immigrant store owner fondly known as “Bubala,” whose natural warmth made him the gravitational center of the triplet’s reunited lives. But other patterns emerged to cast their respective placements in a different light. Each boy had an adopted sister two years older, and each of them was visited regularly for more than a decade by researchers conducting aptitude and behavioral tests.
Author-journalist Lawrence Wright while researching a book on twins found evidence of a psychological study on nature vs. nurture, for which Louise Wise’s company had supplied the human lab rats. The adoptive parents were told only that their sons were part of an individual study, remaining ignorant of the other participants. But each boy had exhibited symptoms of separation anxiety during infancy, something that made sense only in hindsight. It also emerged that similarly reunited twin sisters had been part of the study, along with possibly four other subjects still unaware they have twins.
Making able use of Paul Saunderson’s score, director Wardle steadily reshapes the tone of the film as the sinister ramifications of these discoveries become clear. The ultimate irony, as David’s Aunt Hedy points out, is that Dr. Peter Neubauer, director of the Child Development Center in Manhattan and the psychoanalyst in charge of the study, was a Holocaust refugee from Austria, conducting human experiments in some ways comparable to those carried out by the Nazis.
The three main subjects all are extremely personable characters, and as they joke about their sudden unbridled access to those paramount ‘80s pleasures of sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll, with a little overnight fame thrown in for good measure, you root for them to make up for lost time and forge lasting, mutually nourishing bonds. But the emotional damage done is both insidious and incalculable, particularly with the Louise Wise agency long folded, Neubauer deceased and his surviving assistants able to provide only the sketchiest information on the inconclusive findings of the study. Their evasive answers on its exploitive nature and the seeming disregard for its subjects’ right to know the truth about themselves suggest that they were merely following instructions.
This is a strange, ultimately quite distressing story touched by tragedy, told by Wardle with great skill and compassion in a brisk, consistently absorbing package. While 10,000 pages of redacted information have been released since the events of the film, the fact that the majority of records of the Twin Study remain sealed at Yale University until 2065 all but demands a sequel.
Distribution: CNN Films
Production companies: Raw, CNN Films, in association with Channel 4
Director: Tim Wardle
Producer: Becky Read, Grace Hughes-Hallett
Executive producers: Dimitri Doganis, Adam Hawkins, Tom Barry, Amy Entelis, Courtney Sexton, Sara Ramsden
Director of photography: Tim Cragg
Music: Paul Saunderson
Editor: Michael Harte
Venue: Sundance Film Festival (U.S. Documentary Competition)