Now playing: 'Three Identical Strangers' tells incredible story of triplets separated as infants, reunited by chance as adults
Tim Wardle's award-winning doc explores boys' joyous reunion and dark secret behind their early separation
Some of the most popular documentaries of recent years originate with a story -- not just an interesting story but a truly amazing one, the kind that's hard to get your head around it's so unlikely.
In Man on Wire it was the story of a Frenchman who dared to string a tightrope between the top of the World Trade Center towers -- and then walk across it. In Searching for Sugar Man, the tale revolved around an American musician in the 70s who found little success in the U.S. but became a huge hit in South Africa -- without him being aware of it.
The new documentary Three Identical Strangers, now playing at three locations in New York and two in Los Angeles, is one of those stories.
It's a fantastic human story-- the story of these brothers separated and then reunited.
Director Tim Wardle first heard the tale behind Three Identical Strangers when he was working as director of development at the production company Raw.
"When this idea was brought in to the company I instantly realized this was the most extraordinary story I think I'd ever heard," Wardle told Nonfictionfilm.com. "I was like, 'I have to tell this story.'"
In short, it begins like this: in 1980 a young guy named Bobby Shafran went off to Sullivan County Community College in his native New York. When he got to the campus people kept recognizing him--even though he'd never been there before. One thing led to another and someone convinced him his doppelgänger had attended the college the year before.
It turned out to be not just a doppelgänger, but his actual long-lost twin brother -- a twin brother Bobby never knew he had.
"And then the story went from being amazing to incredible," as a Newsday editor puts it in Three Identical Strangers.
Bobby Shafran and Eddy Galland were brothers all right, but they had another identical sibling too, named David Kellman. They were triplets. And until that point, at age 19, none of them had any idea they had a brother out there, let alone two.
As the documentary explains, the adoption agency Louise Wise Services separated the boys a few months after birth and placed them into three different families, never telling the adoptive parents their baby boy had identical brothers.
"It's a fantastic human story--the story of these brothers separated and then reunited and the story of them and their families," Wardle noted. "It's the story of what happens next."
Indeed, instant fame came the brothers' way once word of their reunion spread throughout the country.
"They were very big for a very short period of time. It's back in 80s where everyone was watching the same TV shows. To go on Donahue was huge and everyone was watching that," Wardle commented. "For their 15 minutes of fame they were everywhere."
The brothers were profiled in newspapers, interviewed by Tom Brokaw on The Today Show and even played a cameo role in the 1985 film Desperately Seeking Susan, doing a triple-take as co-star Madonna walks by them.
Part of what made them such a media sensation was their charm, good looks and irrepressible grins, but beyond that was the question that underpinned every interview--how alike are you? The brothers dressed the same for TV appearances, talked of independently settling on their preferred brand of cigarette--Marlboros--and to being attracted to the same women.
If these guys had remained "identical" in their tastes as well as their looks, despite being separated at birth, what did that say about all of us--twins, triplets or no--and what makes us who we are? Are we the authors of our own lives or merely the expression of a predetermined genetic identity?
Three Identical Strangers "has much bigger thematic questions at its heart--questions about free will, destiny, nature versus nurture, that are kind of big questions but relevant to all of our lives," Wardle observes, adding, "I studied psychology at university so I was aware of the nature/nuture debate...I guess I've always very heavily leaned on the nurture side of the equation and thought that it's all about our environment that makes us who we are."
Wardle said it was not only his experience on the documentary that caused him to reevaluate that conclusion, but also the recent birth of his son.
"When he was born he had a personality instantly and that was kind of shocking to me," Wardle marveled. "I didn't realize how strong that genetic personality would be there from the start. He wasn't a blank slate. I found making the film challenged some of my deeply held preconceptions about nature and nuture... It ultimately probably comes down to it being a combination of the two. But certainly genetics is much more important than I thought."
The question of nature versus nuture of course is a perennial one for psychologists, geneticists and other scientists. The desire for insight into that topic has much to do with why the boys were separated as infants. But to say more would impinge on the moviegoing experience.
"It's lovely people seeing it cold," Wardle says. "The story... takes some incredible twists."
Three Identical Strangers has earned multiple awards, including a Special Jury Prize for storytelling from the Sundance Film Festival, along with audience and jury awards from the Berkshire International Film Festival. The New York Times' Manohla Dargis gave it a "critic's pick" designation, calling the film "engrossing, and sometimes enraging."
The strong response has come as something of a surprise to the director.
"We didn't go to Sundance thinking it was going to be massive or people would even really want to see it," Wardle recalled. "Everything that happened there... [it was] like a crazy experience."
Once word got out at Sundance that Three Identical Strangers was not to be missed, screening tickets became a hot commodity. I was fortunate to get into the final public screening during the festival, taking the very last seat open seat. Wardle recalled the rather tense atmosphere that afternoon as people waited anxiously in line.
"[People wanting to get in] were shouting at staff and it was all getting a bit ugly and I had one spare ticket and I gave it to a producer friend who was in a queue with loads of people and everyone about them got quite upset about it. So I was like, 'Oh dear,'" he remembered. "That was a crazy screening. I think that was the one where we were like, wow, this is actually really popular."
Director Tim Wardle (right) with editor Michael Harte outside the Redstone Cinemas in Park City, Utah, where "Three Identical Strangers" held its final public screening during Sundance. People fearful they wouldn't get into the theater became so anxious they started "shouting at staff," Wardle recalled. January 25, 2017. Photo by Matt Carey
Happily, many who were unable to get into a screening at Sundance will now have the chance to see the film in theaters elsewhere. Three Identical Strangers expands to more locations in the coming days and weeks including San Francisco, Austin, Texas, Tucson, Arizona and Littleton, Colorado [info here].
The film struck a chord with me because I have an identical twin brother, and the thought of being separated from him at birth is unimaginable. But one doesn't need to be a twin, a triplet, or adopted to appreciate Three Identical Strangers. As critic Peter Rainer wrote in the Christian Science Monitor of seeing the film, "It’s a true story that could only be believed because it actually happened."
Matthew Carey is a documentary filmmaker and journalist. His work has appeared on Deadline.com, CNN, CNN.com, TheWrap.com, NBCNews.com and in Documentary magazine.