NEW YORK – The documentary film “Three Identical Strangers” opens with 56-year-old Robert (Bobby) Shafran staring at the camera, telling the following unbelievable story: In the fall of 1980, when he arrived at a small community college in upstate New York, students kept coming over and asking him how his summer had been. The 19-year-old’s excitement quickly turned to confusion. Why would so many perfect strangers make a point of patting him on the back and sharing gossip with him? Why were women he didn’t know stopping to kiss him affectionately on his first day on campus?
The riddle was solved when one of the other students called him “Eddy.” When he looked perplexed, the student insisted that Shafran looked exactly like a young man who had attended the college the previous year. The guy asked Bobby if by chance he had been born on July 12, 1961, and if he were adopted. The answer to both questions was yes.
Not long afterward, Bobby ended up phoning Eddy’s home on Long Island, and discovered that the latter was his twin brother, who had been given up for adoption to a different family, just months after they’d been born.
The reunion between Bobby Shafran and Eddy Galland quickly became a media sensation. The twins were photographed for several local newspapers, including The New York Post. If this were the end of the story told by “Three Identical Strangers,” which premiered at the last Sundance Festival, the movie would have been just one of a long list of stories of siblings separated at birth.
But this was only the first twist in the plot. It wasn’t long before it turned out that Shafran and Galland were actually part of a set of triplets: The third brother, David Kellman, joined the festivities not long after the article appeared in the Post.
“Three Identical Strangers,” released to theaters in America last week (and purchased for screening in Israel by Yes Docu), has been remarkably successful, already raking in more than $1 million. The film also includes new revelations about a controversial psychological study by the late Peter Neubauer, a prominent Austrian-born Freudian psychologist who worked with Anna Freud and emigrated to the United States after World War II. It is a disturbing and tragic story about the hubris of Jewish scientists who didn’t hesitate – less than two decades after the Holocaust – to use human beings as lab rats: The study that fundamentally changed the lives of the three protagonists in the documentary, and more than 60 sets of twins, was supposed to provide an answer to the classic question regarding human development: Nature or nurture – which plays more of a role in a person’s development, his genes or his environment?
“Three Identical Strangers,” directed by Tim Wardle, is one of those documentaries, often low-budget, that focuses on unforgettable characters, reveals new information about shady dealings and has plot twists that would not shame “Game of Thrones.” Still, this film differs from others in the genre because of the gradual and intelligent way Wardle unveils the story. In a sense, the relatively slow pace of the film allows viewers to experience an emotional process – albeit relatively accelerated (the movie is 1 1/2 hours long) – that’s parallel to what the three young men went through. The euphoria accompanying the initial discovery of each other is soon replaced by an emotional complexity that leads in turn to a tragic end, and to tough questions about the latitude Neubauer and his team look with regard to the babies and the parents who adopted them.
The first, optimistic part of the film focuses on the joy of discovery and meeting of the three brothers. Although they grew up in different parts of New York State in families of different socioeconomic classes, the three seem to be clones of each other. In interviews on talk shows in the early 1980s, the three of them cheerfully told enthusiastic hosts that they all smoked only Marlboros, preferred older women, tried to pursue a career in wrestling, and shared similar body language and speech. Given that the three liked to wear identical clothes and boasted black curls and broad shoulders, it is easy to understand why the media fell in love with them.
For a while it seems that the joyful discovery of each other was the best thing that could have happened to the trio. This feeling is amplified when Shafran recounts how he and his two brothers were the darlings of Club 54 and the New York nightlife scene in general, and shared a bachelors’ apartment during the 1980s. In one of the film’s most amusing moments, Shafran recalls how the three were stopped on a Manhattan street and were asked spontaneously to participate in a scene in “Desperately Seeking Susan,” the 1985 film that made Madonna a movie star.
In another scene, Galland says that the threesome took advantage of the amazing similarity between them to use one of the brothers’ health insurance to finance an appendectomy for another brother. In 1988, the three took advantage of the media coverage to launch a restaurant called Triplets Roumanian Steakhouse in SoHo, and the euphoria continued apace (“In the first year we made $1 million,” Shafran relates with pride, in the movie).
But the financial success and familial utopia were short-lived. A few year later, it became clear that despite their similarities, there were disagreements among the three regarding management style and work ethics. By the time their restaurant closed in 2000, the post-discovery excitement had been replaced by questions that refused to give them and their three sets of adoptive parents any rest: Why did the adoption agency not bother to inform the parents that their child had siblings? Why were they never asked if they would agree to adopt them as well? How did this policy affect the lives of other twins or triplets born in the 1950s or ‘60s and put up for adoption, who have yet to discover their siblings?
The six adoptive parents initiated a meeting in the late 1980s with representatives of the now-defunct Louise Wise Services Jewish adoption agency, and received laconic answers. Shafran’s father tells the camera that he and his wife were told the boys had been separated because the agency feared that no family would agree to adopt three children.
That was the day the families got the first warning – though not the last – that something more sinister had been going on. The elder Shafran had forgotten his umbrella in the conference room where the fateful meeting had taken place. “He went back to get it,” says his wife, in the movie, “And he walked into the room to see them breaking open a bottle of champagne and toasting each other, as if they had dodged a bullet.” The parents became suspicious and angry.
The champagne that was opened in the first act becomes a hair-raising story in the final act of the film. “Three Identical Strangers” raises difficult questions about how Neubauer managed to recruit an adoption agency to conduct a social experiment lasting two decades, many of whose details and outcomes remain unclear even today. Neubauer himself died in 2008, but based on interviews with research assistants who participated in the study, one of his goals was to gather empirical data on the impact of parenting styles (“authoritarian” versus “permissive”) on children with the same genetic background.
“Three Identical Strangers” is a moving and wise record of a family that broke apart and managed to reunite against all odds. Not only is the film notable because of the warmth, charisma and personal charm of its heroes, but because of how it confronts viewers with issues concerning free will. Although Neubauer’s controversial psychological study has been exposed in the past (for example, in “Identical Strangers,” the 2007 biography of twins Elyse Schein and Paula Bernstein, who were also separated at birth as part of the very same experiment), this is the first documentary film focusing on the triplets’ story. The surprising success of the film at the box office can be attributed to the trend of “true crime” series and to the great thirst for fact-based stories in an age where the border between truth and fiction is becoming increasingly blurred.
“Three Identical Strangers” is thus a faithful representation of the spirit of the times. It’s about the way in which the authorities and those with power – headed by a charismatic and respected psychologist – abuse their powers in the name of science. The study in question, and the film itself, fail to provide an unequivocal answer to the question of nature vs. nurture, but its fateful results prove beyond doubt that a supportive environment can save many people from personal tragedies that are not of their own making. In this sense, “Three Identical Strangers” deals as much with parenting as it does with genetics.
Above the film looms the ghost of the triplets’ biological mother, who is only briefly mentioned and whose name is not revealed. Bobby and David dryly note that they managed to locate her and met her in their late 20s. The mother, it turns out, was a young woman who got pregnant the night of her high-school prom. Shafran says she probably had some serious emotional problems, but does not reveal whether he or his brothers kept in touch with her.
While the film provides a complex and evocative picture of the triplets and their adoptive parents, the woman who gave birth to them remains out of the frame. No one bothered to ask whether she wanted to participate in a scientific experiment whose results would remain secret for decades. This story has many victims, but the biological mother is the only one that Wardle and his interviewees were apparently reluctant to take an interest in.