Watching Three Identical Strangers, opening Friday (July 13), the viewer is overcome more than once by a sense of vertigo. The first five minutes alone provide a euphoric, white-knuckle account of the bizarre coincidence that brought identical twins Robert Shafran and Eddy Galland together, at 19, for the first time since birth. Matters became even more hair-raising when the ensuing media sensation smoked out a third brother, David Kellman. For a brief but heady time, the likably goofy trio was the toast of ’80s New York. A knowing cameo appearance as three horny youths in Madonna’s Desperately Seeking Susan marked perhaps the zenith of the triplets’ flash celebrity.
So far, so weird. But then the story gets dark—very dark, and even more mind-bending—as Three Identical Strangers tells an altogether different tale of scientific ethics gone awry and a massive cover-up that persists to this day. Without giving too much away, there’s a reason why the brothers were covertly adopted into separate families and why their development was monitored so closely by the authorities. As one of them remarks on-screen: “This is like Nazi shit.”
“There was a paranoia when we were making it, because so many of the people we met were like, ‘You’ll never be able to tell this story; it’s been shut down so many times,’ ” director Tim Wardle tells the Georgia Straight from Toronto. As work proceeded, the acclaimed filmmaker recalls, one interview subject after another bailed on him. “And we were never sure if someone had got to them or they’d changed their mind or what happened,” he says with a sigh.
There have been, in fact, several attempts to tell the brothers’ story on-screen. “I‘ve spoken to a journalist who worked on one in the ’90s, a triple-Pulitzer-winning journalist who basically finished the film and then had it pulled from high up the network,” Wardle states. “And still, to this day, doesn’t know why.” With the kind of access afforded by CNN, which coproduced Three Identical Strangers, Wardle and his team arguably succeeded in their quest by not getting too close to the source of the mystery. Wardle—whose dealings with some very distinguished quasi-government organizations in New York had to be conducted through crisis-management firms—concedes: “I don’t know how high up the food chain it goes.” Meanwhile, the film reveals that files related to the brothers’ case remain sealed at Yale until—get this—the year 2065.
Enough is strongly implied, at least, that Three Identical Strangers can ultimately turn its attention to some of the no less intriguing questions raised by the triplets’ divergent life experiences. It becomes, in short, a meditation on biology and environment. And its conclusions are anything but simple, or reassuring.
“I think that’s one thing that I really struggled with on this film,” Wardle says. “You discover that nature has much more impact than you might think. Me and [producer] Becky Read, every day we’d have a different debate about the relative merits of nature/nurture. But certainly, learning that nature is far more powerful than you thought, as a liberal person, is quite a scary thing. Making it challenged some pretty deep-seated views that I have.”