In 1982, Alex Lewis’s life changed forever. He was involved in a near-fatal motorcycle accident - an accident that left him in a coma. When he awoke, he was relieved to find his identical twin brother, Marcus, by his side.
However, Marcus was the only person that Alex remembered from his life before the accident. He didn’t remember his mother or his stepfather. He didn’t remember his girlfriend, his friends or his childhood home. He didn’t even remember who he was.
It fell to Marcus to provide Alex with his missing memories - teaching him about everyday objects and informing him about the complicated rules that had to be followed in their family home.
As Marcus recreated Alex’s life, he decided to repress some aspects of the past. Secrets that remained in place for almost 15 years. Secrets that threatened to shatter Alex’s reality all over again. Secrets that refused to remain buried.
Ed Perkins’s documentary,Tell Me Who I Am, is best watched with as little prior knowledge of Marcus and Alex’s story as possible. However, this is not just a film about a disturbing secret. It is about the incredible journey upon which these two brothers embark.
Tell Me Who I Am, very much like Sarah Polley’s superb documentary, Stories We Tell, explores family secrets and the blurred landscape between memory and reality. The film examines how living a lie can sometimes be far easier than confronting a truth.
Perkins first encountered Marcus and Alex’s story in a newspaper article. “We started the journey seven years ago, in 2012,” says Marcus. “Alex has always been searching for what the truth was, so we ended up doing a magazine piece.”
The twins then wrote a book about their experiences (also called Tell Me Who I Am). However, the article and the book only went so far. “I thought I could just do the book, give a few one line answers and just blag it out… I was just going to skirt around it,” Marcus explains. “When we finished the book, Alex wasn't satisfied.”
Marcus hadn’t wanted to write the book in the first place but did so for his brother. When he realised that Alex was still seeking answers, Marcus felt that a movie would be a good idea. Alex was not so sure.
“We seem very confident twins, but I am still quite reserved underneath,” Alex explains. “I wasn't ready, and I just thought the movie sounded a step too far, but Marcus desperately wanted to do it and because he had done the book for me, I said, ‘Okay, I'll do that. I'll do the movie for you’.”
The documentary took five years to make. During that time Perkins built up trust with both brothers. “There were definitely times throughout the five year gestation of the project where both guys came to me with real concerns about whether they'd have the strength to make the film,” the director recalls. “And I think actually, in a way, the fact that it took quite a long time really helped us because it allowed us all to have spent so much time together just sitting in the pub or down at their office, and we built a real relationship of trust.”
The result is a gripping, immersive and startlingly honest film. A documentary that draws you in with its mysteries and then breaks your heart when you realise just what secrets lie in Marcus and Alex’s past.
Meanwhile, a simple structure - interviews combined with dramatic reconstructions - belies a far more complex narrative technique. Perkins could not film in Marcus and Alex’s family home and so he had to recreate the house based on their memories. He used actors to portray key moments in their childhood.
As the film progresses, these recreated moments and images are repeated. However, as with Errol Morris's The Thin Blue Line, they take on a new significance each time as we are forced to reinterpret what we are seeing based on what Marcus has shared.
For the first two acts of Tell Me Who I Am, Marcus and Alex are interviewed separately. Each twin tells his own story. Then, in the third act, the brothers are brought together. This is an extremely powerful moment. Marcus is about to give Alex the information that he has been seeking for 15 years.
It feels incredible, perhaps even inappropriate, that we should observe this painful and difficult experience. We sense the reluctance that Marcus feels and worry about the well being of both brothers.
Perkins was aware that he was entering into emotionally charged territory. As a result, he created the safest possible environment for this conversation to happen on camera. “There's an enormous duty of care,” he explains. “We had a support team on hand if Alex and Marcus needed them.”
Just before he was about to open up, Marcus looked Perkins in the eye and asked him why he should talk about such difficult things - for the first time - on camera. “All I kept saying was, ‘you don't have to talk, screw the film, ignore the film, you don't have to do this at all. Only do it if you want to do it’. And it was this really amazing back and forth that went on for about ten minutes, until suddenly Marcus decided he wanted to break his silence,” Perkins remembers.
This moment is not included in the documentary, but you see the conflict in Marcus and wonder why he would want to go through this painful process. And then, looking directly into the camera, he explains exactly why. In this moment, I understood the power of this documentary for Marcus, Alex and anyone who has a similar story to tell.
While it might be easier to look away from stories like these, Tell Me Who I Am shows us why it is so important to confront these truths. To say that Marcus and Alex are brave to share their history with the world - to place themselves in such an emotionally vulnerable position - is an understatement.
Marcus and Alex have refused to be destroyed by their past and have found resolution by opening up and confronting their darkest secrets. As a result, the final moments of Tell Me Who I Am are both incredibly moving and inspiring.
“It sounds almost trite to say it - but it’s absolutely true - that on the last day of the shoot, we
found closure live on camera,” says Marcus. “We literally finished, said goodbye to everybody, went to the pub around the corner and me and Alex both looked at each other and said, ‘it's finished now’.”