Tell Me Who I Am (2019)

Directed by Ed Perkins

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Tell Me Who I Am is a gut-wrenching, at times frustrating documentary about a completely fascinating true story.  It’s the type of story a Netflix executive’s dreams are made of, something that follows in the footsteps of other Netflix content like Making a Murderer, The Staircase or Evil Genius.

And I find these stories quite irritating, putting aside the true story.  It’s a whole subgrene of lurid criminal activity, teased out in such ways to maximize the drama while undercutting the people involved.  But how could I possibly know anything about the people involved and their roles in these films and limited series?

It often just feels manipulative, like it’s taking advantage of real people and real pain, packing it up in a tidy manner to deliver to people who could care less about those involved and take away only the sensational rush of hearing about what happened.

And to this documentary’s credit, I suppose, there is plenty of time given to the two people involved, the two victims of sexual abuse.  They are twin brothers, and their talking head segments run the entirety of the film.

But as with these other sensationalized docudramas they speak in a way that feels rehearsed, only insofar as it’s structured in a way to maximize the drama and not to reveal any narrative plot twists before they ripen.

The whole thing just feels a little too performative before we get to the third act in which the two identical twin brothers sit down and simply talk amongst themselves.  Of course their conversation is gut-wrenching because of their history together, but even that arena feels too manipulative, staged specifically for the cameras.

I’m not sure how to feel about it, putting aside that my feelings don’t much matter.  If the people who could be taken advantage of from this are the two people speaking to the cameras, well then that should be okay, right?  They’re taking control of the narrative, of their own story, and they of course have every right to tell their story.

And it’s a pretty surreal story, involving a near-death memory-erasing incident that just so happens to have followed years of sexual abuse with a twin brother who chose not to relive those moments.  After their parents have died and evidence of the sexual abuse surfaces, the one brother is forced to reveal, in vague terms, what happened to the brother who couldn’t remember it.

It’s an unreal story.

Maybe it’s too unreal, I’m not sure, but the documentary is so stylized, with all the cinematic recreations of events the brothers chronicle, and it’s so stylish and kind of self-consciously so.  It just feels like in that style it loses some of its humanity, in the name of producing riveting drama.  There’s just something about these kinds of movies I don’t like, and that has more to do with me than with the effectiveness of the documentary.

Because it’s well-made, the story is, well it’s disturbing and at times moving, but there was always something keeping me at arm’s length, like this is something we’re not supposed to see, something we’re peering into that just so happens to have also been rolled out on the red carpet for us.

Maybe it’s insensitive, or maybe if this didn’t feel so designed to maximize profits I would find it more– well sh*t I don’t know, it’s a documentary about a tough subject, but it also happens to have been released the same year as HBO’s Michael Jackson documentary which itself was gossip’d about and run through the PR machine months before it’s release.

So we’re supposed to watch these things, shake our heads and be moved by what we hear, and those things are true, but they are also rolled out just like any other product, designed to stimulate us and keep us coming back for more.  It’s all rather unnerving, everything about it.

Up Next: Runaway Train (1985), The Castle (1997), Frankie (2019)

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