In 1980, two complete strangers - Robert Shafran and Edward Galland - made an astonishing discovery. They were 19 year old identical twins who had been separated at birth, adopted and raised by different families.
The story then went from amazing to absolutely incredible when, thanks to an article about Robert and Edward in the New York Post, David Kellman realised he was their triplet, adopted to yet another family.
An overwhelming and joyful reunion ensued and the triplets became an instant media sensation. They threw themselves into triplet life - appearing on countless television shows, featuring on the covers of magazines, partying hard and even appearing in a movie with Madonna.
However, what was gained also revealed what had been lost and the discovery set in motion a chain of events that unearthed an extraordinary and disturbing secret.
Tim Wardle’s gripping and deeply moving documentary, Three Identical Strangers, tells the story of the events that led to the separation of Robert, Edward and David and examines the lasting impact of their reunion.
This is a film best watched with as little prior knowledge as possible (although it should also be noted that the documentary rewards repeat viewings).
Wardle and his editor, Michael Harte, take us through the twists and turns of this remarkable tale chronologically - we discover the details in the same order that the triplets did. As a result, Three Identical Strangers conveys the joy and energy of the reunion while also indulging in some big reveals. However, the storytelling is sensitive - aware that, for the triplets and their loved ones, this story is real.
Three Identical Strangers emphasises the tension between the past and the present. The past is told via to camera interviews alongside reconstruction and archive footage. Then, in a moment of Herzogian intensity, Wardle thanks his interview subjects for their time and we see them walk away from the camera. This marks the film’s transition into the present and the adoption of a more observational style as we follow the hunt for answers.
Watching Three Identical Strangers, it seems incredible that Robert, Edward and David’s life has not made it to the big screen (Desperately Seeking Susan aside) before. However, Wardle and producers Beccy Read and Grace Hughes-Hallett initially struggled to get funding. The main stumbling block? Concerns about the lack of a third act.
According to Wardle, only 50-60 percent of the story was widely known before Three Identical Strangers was released. As is the case with many documentaries, new information came to light during the five years that it took to make the film.
The end result is a powerful three act story that explores wider themes of child psychology and nature versus nurture. What makes this documentary so compelling (and thought provoking) is that Wardle never ventures into good versus evil territory.
Three Identical Strangers features interviews with two people who were on the periphery of the mystery surrounding Robert, Edward and David’s separation. While it would have been easy to paint them as villians, their insights and experience is put into context. “I’m not interested in making a film about goodies and baddies, I want to make a film about human beings in all of their rich and troubling complexity,” the director explains.
The story behind the making of Three Identical Strangers began when Hughes-Hallett was producing another documentary, The Dark Matter Of Love. She was told about the triplets and then made contact with Robert’s mother.
The triplets and their families were understandably wary of filmmakers. Many had promised to tell their story and then failed to follow through on those promises. So much so that the filmmaking process was haunted by conspiracy theories and a sense of paranoia threatened to descend.
“I definitely agree with [journalist] Lawrence Wright’s suggestion in the film that there are a lot of powerful people who would like to have this story silenced,” says Wardle. Three Identical Strangers succeeded where others have failed partly because of the passage of time (many of those involved have now died) and also because Wardle and his team were able to learn from the experiences of previous filmmakers in terms of who they approached to talk about the story, and when and how they approached them.
Read and Hughes-Hallett spent four years finding potential sources and establishing trust with those involved in this story. At the beginning of the process, the producers faced significant challenges involving high levels of secrecy and heartbreaking estrangement.
As a result of their research and relationship building, the documentary managed to both shed light on some of the mysteries and also enable the start of a healing process - something that remains very much a work in progress.
The documentary’s greatest insights into the situation come from David’s Aunt Heddy. Her moving observations guide us through this incredible story. To my mind, no scientist or psychologist could interpret this story better than Aunt Heddy.
Perhaps no one will ever know the full story of what happened to Robert, Edward and David. This is, of course, utterly outrageous. It is also heartbreaking to consider that knowledge of every tiny detail about this situation will never truly make up for what was lost.