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Netflix Documentary ‘Tell Me Who I Am’ Is a Must-See, but It’s an Unlikely Oscar Contender

Ed Perkins' chilling documentary about twins Alex and Marcus Lewis, identity, memory, and family secrets is compelling and heartbreaking.

Marcus and Alex Lewis of “Tell Me Who I Am”

Anne Thompson

The premise is irresistible: After a motorcycle accident, 18-year-old Alex Lewis wakes up in an English hospital and sees a man and a woman on either side of his bed. He instantly recognizes his twin brother Marcus, but doesn’t know his mother. Marcus starts to fill in Alex’s empty, amnesiac brain with all the people, places, and things he needs to know in order to function at home, at school, and in the world.

But Marcus creates an alternate reality from the one they actually grew up in. He paints a prettier picture of Lewis family life, invents vacations they never took, and leaves things out, including their childhood sexual abuse. After the brothers first told their story to The Sunday Times, followed by 2013 U.K. bestseller “Tell Me Who I Am,” young British documentary filmmaker Ed Perkins chased them down and spent five years working with them to dig deeper.

After Perkins got the greenlight from his boss, Lightbox producer Simon Chinn, to proceed on his debut feature, he landed an 2018 Oscar nomination for stylish documentary short “Black Sheep.” That experience taught him “to be confident in interview testimony, to not feel I have to constantly cut away to reenactments,” he said. “I can just sit on someone’s face and rely on twitches and body language.”

Many producers approached the twins, who are now in their 50s. For Marcus, “it’s been a journey of discovery from the beginning,” he said. “When I was 32, Alex asked, ‘Had we been abused?’ “I said, ‘Yes,’ but said nothing. I didn’t give him much. I was ambiguous in the book. ‘I was abused, blah blah.’ I thought it was enough for the audience, and enough for Alex.”

But good friends told him, “‘You really didn’t tell us anything,'” said Marcus. “And I hadn’t appreciated that Alex hadn’t got what he wanted.”

“I hadn’t finished searching,” said Alex. “Marcus and I work together and speak to each other five times a day, but he didn’t know we were not finished.”

“We wanted to extend it,” said Perkins. “We talked for five years at the pub, always separately.”

“We said crazy things,” said Alex, “and we never once talked about this. ‘We don’t need to. We’re twins, we’re fine.'”

The film couldn’t progress until Perkins built trust and a zone of safety. “I was asking Marcus, ‘Why make the film?'” said Perkins. “And he said, ‘I don’t want to be silent anymore.’ It felt unresolved between them. They wanted to talk, but hadn’t been able to, it was too painful. We promised to make them feel safe.”

“Tell Me Who I Am”

Netflix

Chinn feels strongly that they were right to let the movie gestate for five years. “We couldn’t bring ourselves to make the film,” he said. “We didn’t feel ready. They didn’t feel ready. Usually subjects are like, ‘When can we start?’ We’d say, ‘We’re doing a project, you’re not going to talk to us for a few months.'”

“They were all cool, happy to push it down the line,” said Perkins. “Could I do justice to the story?  I was young. What they had done was so brave. Could I navigate through that safely and responsibly?”

Most helpful for Perkins was spending time with therapists who helped guide him through the process of coaxing the abuse narrative out of Marcus, who never underwent psychoanalysis, as Alex had. “Therapy would take him to place he doesn’t want to go,” said Alex. “A Pandora’s box.”

“The moment in the interview when we got to the core story of, ‘What did your mom do to you as a child?'” said Perkins, “I was stunned. I thought he could not do it.”

For the book, Marcus said, “I opened the box this much, and closed it again. When we did the movie, it did not take that much pushing me to take it all out. But I was never, at the beginning of the process, going to do that. I was terrified.”

“Tell Me Who I Am”

Netflix

The director never told Marcus why he should do it, even when Marcus asked. Perkins only repeated, “Do whatever you want. You don’t have to tell me.” Marcus became increasingly anxious, repeatedly asking Perkins to tell him what to do. Suddenly he said, “Fuck it. Okay, let’s do it.”

Afterward, he had no memory of what he said. Perkins played the video interview back to him on his laptop. “He showed me the thing,” said Marcus. His reaction? “‘I didn’t do that.'”

The next step was to show Alex what Marcus said, and for the brothers to talk to each other. The documentary unfolds with Alex’s story first, followed by Marcus’s point of view. The final scenes show the two men facing each other in a dimly lit room with the camera at some distance. They were going to talk about what had been unspoken between them for decades. Marcus didn’t realize how angry Alex was at him for altering and withholding information. But they both knew how difficult it would be.

“Tell Me Who I Am”

“We didn’t want to do it,” said Marcus.

“I wanted to do it,” said Alex. “I wanted the last piece of the jigsaw over 20 years. My parents really were my parents. But one piece was missing. It was traumatic for me. What Marcus did not want understand is that a lot of stuff had happened that we did not know from the book. I didn’t know the facts. In my mind, I had gone through all sorts of scenarios. I took the jigsaw and made up my own synopsis. I wanted the truth.”

“I didn’t know,” said Marcus. “I always thought he was fine. If he asked a question, I gave an answer.”

Perkins asked Marcus if he wanted to show Alex an edited version, or the whole thing, uncut. “It took a millisecond,” said Marcus. “‘I’m not going to do this again. Show him the whole thing.'”

Alex wasn’t told what he would see until they were filming live. “Marcus said, ‘I’ve got this. You can see it,'” said Alex. The brothers had no sense of the cameras filming them in one long take, as they talked. When they finished, they each had a strong cup of tea, then went to the pub next door for one beer each.

“Are we done?” Marcus asked.

“We’re done,” said Alex.

Of course, they weren’t. On October 18, Netflix’ began streaming the movie in 190 countries and 26 languages.

“It’s just a story,” said Alex.

It’s a story that includes extensive reenactments, and that makes the movie an unlikely Oscar contender. The finicky documentary branch often frowns on movies that fabricate the past (James Marsh’s Oscar-winner “Man on Wire” is the exception that proves the rule.)  But the book gave the Lewis twins a public profile in England, and the owners of the house they grew up in wouldn’t let them shoot there. So Perkins, with help from cinematographer Erik Wilson (“The Imposter”), recreated the interior from home movies and photos with an accuracy that made the brothers gasp. “It freaked me out,” said Marcus. “I kept saying to Alex, ‘How did they get into our house?'”

“In a film about a weird blurring of fact and fiction,” said Perkins, “we use techniques that allow the film to explore those issues with authenticity and integrity.”

Perkins used a long lens to put the audience in Alex’s shoes, and Act 2 returns to the story from Marcus’s perspective, using some of the same shots. “I was fascinated that two people emotionally have totally different interpretations,” he said. “That means as close as these guys were, emotionally they were far apart.”

The filmmakers made certain changes based on the brothers’ feedback. “We didn’t want to come across as victims,” said Marcus. “We felt strongly about that. We asked them to put more happy stuff in there about our wives and kids.”

Said Perkins, “I respect that, having gone through something so traumatic, they are amazing parents. The film goes to difficult places, but leads up to a place of real hope.”

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