“Three Identical Strangers” may be the most surprising documentary since “Tickled,” beginning as a stranger-than-fiction comedy before revealing itself as something much darker. Tim Wardle’s account of triplets reuniting 20 years after being separated at birth — and, until a chance encounter between two brothers made headlines, never knowing their siblings even existed — has won acclaim since its Sundance premiere earlier this year. But in many ways, the story hasn’t ended.
Wardle recently presented his film as part of the IDA Screening Series in Los Angeles, explaining how the Jewish Board, which played a key role in the decades-long events of the film, remains cagey to this day. “When the brothers [Robert Shafran, Edward Galland, and David Kellman] tried to interact with them, they would only deal with the brothers via a medical-malpractice attorney — so you can kind of draw your own conclusions from that,” he said. “They did write a letter of apology, though.”
The film’s effects extend far beyond its three main subjects. “About three weeks ago we were contacted, me and my producer, by a woman who is 54 years old. She’d seen the film, she knew she was adopted from Louise Wise [the adoption service featured in “Three Identical Strangers”], and decided as a result of seeing the film to kind of dig into her past a bit more,” Wardle said.
“She’d repeatedly been told that she was, you know, a lone child adopted from this agency. She then took a DNA test. It matched — she lived in New York — with someone in L.A. She looked her up very quickly on Facebook and, she says, ‘found herself staring at herself.”
The two had been separated at birth and never knew of one another’s existence, as had the three siblings at the center of Wardle’s film. “I filmed them reuniting three weeks ago in New York at the age of 54 for the first time,” Wardle said. “It was a pretty extraordinary moment.”
Wardle said the sisters may have been part of the control group for the study, which was intended to study the nature-versus-nurture effects of siblings growing up without one another. “For me it’s at the heart of the film,” Wardle said. “Why do good people sometimes do bad things? These scientists, they’re not bad people … my personal belief, having studied psychology at university, is that there was that period in the ’50s and ’60s that was kind of like the Wild West for psychology. People were kind of pushing the envelope in terms of science and what’s possible. I personally believe that there was a great deal of ego involved.”
Which is to say: This wasn’t born of altruism. “If you could get more clarity of the nature/nurture question, you would become one of the most famous psychologists in the world.”
The IDA Documentary Screening Series brings some of the year’s most acclaimed documentary films to the IDA community and members of industry guilds and organizations. Films selected for the Series receive exclusive access to an audience of tastemakers and doc lovers during the important Awards campaigning season from September through November. For more information about the series, and a complete schedule, visit IDA.