The mesmerizing new documentary Three Identical Strangers explores a true story that would be dismissed as too bizarre to be believed if it were fiction. It started innocently enough as the kind of feel good human-interest story beloved by local news, but ended up more like an episode of The X-Files.
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In 1961, identical triplets Bobby Shafran, Eddy Galland and David Kellman were born at Long Island Jewish Medical Center. They had been separated at birth and adopted by three different families (including one on Long Island), all growing up unaware that they had a brother, least of all two. When they accidentally found each other at age 19, the three handsome young men quickly became medial darlings. They moved into a Manhattan bachelor pad, became regulars at the city’s many nightclubs and even had a cameo in Desperately Seeking Susan at Madonna’s personal request. They capitalized on their celebrity by opening a successful restaurant that they naturally called Triplets.
However, when first their parents and then the brothers started trying to get to the truth about their original separation, they became immersed in a mystery and were forced to confront unsettling questions about their childhood that would prove to have potentially fatal consequences.
Psychologists have long explored the enigma of which is most influential in shaping our inner selves: environment or genetics. It is a question that is boiled down into the catchphrase “Nature vs. Nurture.” Most agree that it is some combination of the two but debate endlessly over which is more important. People are charmed by identical births with adorable kids dressed in matching outfits but also disquieted because they challenge our desire to be unique. However, for scientific researchers they offer a rare opportunity to compare genetically identical humans. The brothers’ amazing lives seemed like the perfect opportunity for study…perhaps a little too perfect. As they dig deeper, the brothers uncover clues that they might have been part of a massive, secret experiment conducted by controversial psychologist Peter Neubauer at the Jewish Board of Family and Children’s Services’ Child Development Center. Their requests for even basic information is stonewalled by both the Louise Wise Adoption Agency and the Jewish Board. The possibility that a Jewish scientist who escaped the Nazis was conducting experiments with Jewish children and families that included Holocaust survivors only adds another layer of ethical ambiguity. The trio simply want answers, but their search takes them into a labyrinth where every new discovery only leads to even more disturbing questions.
Professionals with knowledge about the case are interviewed, but it is the voices of the brothers and their families that ground this mind-blowing saga in universal human emotions. Filmmaker Tim Wardle skillfully keeps viewers on the edge of their seats as this astonishing story unfolds, crafting a film that manages to be uniquely unsettling, entertaining and thought provoking.
No one, including the brothers, will ever know how their lives might have turned out if they had not been separated. As the film traces the dramatically different fates of the supposedly identical brothers, it develops into a powerful indictment of the willingness of some scientists to treat human beings like lab rats. The arrogance of the scientists behind this vast experiment, the full dimensions of which remain shrouded in mystery, contrast dramatically with the brothers’ honest determination to get to the truth about their lives.