By Kirsten Coachman
(Ed. note: Sensitive content and spoilers ahead.)
“Tell Me Who I Am,” a new Netflix release from Oscar-nominated documentary filmmaker Ed Perkins (“Black Sheep”), began with an article in a British newspaper which detailed an extraordinary story of the Lewis brothers: Alex, who had his memory wiped clean, with exception of recognizing his twin brother following a motorcycle accident at the age of 18 in 1982, and Marcus, said twin, who helped fill in the blanks of Alex’s life. As he decided what to tell his brother about their family home life, Marcus decided to paint a childhood for Alex that neither of them had experienced in order to cover up a painful secret: they had suffered abuse as children.
In “Tell Me Who I Am,” Alex and Marcus, now in their early 50s, take viewers through their individual sides of the story. The emotionally-heavy film, heightened with thought-provoking imagery and reenactments throughout, will leave you questioning what you would have done in Marcus’ place. Would you be forthcoming or would you choose to shield a loved one from an unspeakable trauma they no longer remembered?
Perkins, taken with certain themes he found within Alex and Marcus’ story—“brotherhood, memory, and identity, and truth and lies”—reached out to the brothers to discuss the potential of bringing their story to the screen.
“It’s taken us a long time to make this film, and one of the great things about that long gestation period was that it allowed us to build a real relationship of trust before we ever got a camera bag,” said Perkins during a recent interview with Academy Art U News at the Alamo Drafthouse New Mission. “In my experience, these kinds of documentaries are—from a directing point of view—they’re all about giving empathy and gaining and building trust,” he added.
An integral part of filming was making sure that the brothers were comfortable and felt safe as they shared their story on-camera. Given the sensitive nature surrounding this story, Perkins shared that duty of care was “absolutely essential” and that part of his preparation included sitting down with two therapists prior to filming. He was interested to learn about how they might have worked with Alex and Marcus had they sought out their help as well as how to navigate difficult conversations in a manner that wouldn’t trigger potential flashbacks or retraumatization during their on-camera interviews.
“Those conversations with the therapists were so helpful, I feel like every doc filmmaker should do that,” the director shared. “It really gave me new tools to actually understand how both to allow for disclosure but to make sure that we were safe and they were safe.”
Perkins’ conversations with the therapists also influenced the space he created for Alex and Marcus to tell their story. He admitted some have criticized the studio space, deeming it “so sterile” and “so clinical,” however Perkins knew the space as it was set up was necessary for the film.
“There’s a reason they haven’t had a conversation for 20 years and I thought it was sort of disingenuous to try to allow them to have the conversation in their sitting room and just pretend the cameras happened to be there at the right time at their home,” he explained. “I wanted to create somewhere that was purposely, consciously different, that would take them out of the normal world in which they haven’t had a conversation and into a new space specifically for the purpose of this film. And that actually proved to be a really powerful thing.”
When it came to how Perkins would relay Alex and Marcus’ story to audiences, he revealed that he had a three-act narrative in mind very early in the process and that the film’s long edit proved to be beneficial.
“With feature documentaries like this, having a lot of time to try out structures and ideas and narrative arcs I think is really, really important,” he said, further commenting that he really wanted audiences to take the journey of finding out about this secret with Alex, starting when he wakes up from his coma. “I wanted them to experience what must be just the most terrifying emptiness of realizing you have lost your entire memory and your identity. I wanted you to … experience and meet the home, meet the parents in the same way and at the same time Alex was doing in the unfolding of the story.”
It’s not until the third act of the film that viewers get to see Alex and Marcus sit down face-to-face with one another. In a conversation that Perkins had with Marcus a few years prior to this moment, the director asked him why he really wanted to make the film and Marcus answered: “I don’t want to be silent anymore.” The director, noting that while he couldn’t speak for Alex and Marcus, said that he had a “gut-feeling” that the brothers, who interact with one another on an everyday basis, knew it was time for them to talk. “They needed to have a conversation and they needed to draw a line under some of the things that they’d gone through as children and the impact that had had and Marcus’ lie had had on them as identical twins, so they decided to go for it,” said Perkins. “I’d often thought if we hadn’t made the film, would they have had this conversation? And they think the answer is probably no.” The director went on to reveal that the brothers have shared with him that they haven’t spoken about this part of their past since.
“They talk about that moment as being a really poignant, pivotal moment in their relationship,” Perkins said. “My hope for them is that—on top of their bravery hopefully having an impact on lots of people who get to see this film—[they] will inspire people to come forward and talk and not feel burdened by what they’ve been through.”
“Tell Me Who I Am” is now streaming on Netflix.