Two Brothers Face a Torturous Secret in Netflix Documentary ‘Tell Me Who I Am’
It’s one thing to lose your memory, quite another to discover that the darkest corners of your life are still being kept hidden from you even after recovery. Netflix’s moving documentary “Tell Me Who I Am” is about such a case. It tells the story of Alex Lewis, a 55-year-old man who at the age of 18 suffered a brutal motorcycle accident. Left in a coma, he then awoke to find every trace of memory nearly gone except for recognition of his twin brother Marcus. But recovering common day knowledge was the easy part when compared to what Marcus kept secret.
Director Ed Perkins keeps the design of the documentary sparse and direct. Alex and Marcus look into the camera and recount their life together as siblings. Born into a family of blue blood stock in England, they came of age under the shadow of a tyrannical father and seemingly closer mother. In the 1970s Alex suffers his motorcycle accident and finds his mind erased except for his memory of Marcus. When Alex returns home his brother aids in helping him relearn daily essentials and to become familiar again with their large manor. Somehow they are able to even fool old relations like Alex’s girlfriend. But years later when the brothers are in their 30s and their parents pass away, Alex notices that Marcus shows little sympathy or even grief. Curious, he begins to rummage through the home and comes across a photo of him and his brother as children, naked with their heads cut out of the picture. This sets Alex on a quest to demand answers from Marcus on other memories his brother has not revealed to him, terrible secrets of abuse begin to bubble to the surface.
“Tell Me Who I Am” is one of the year’s most wrenching and heartbreaking documentaries. Like “Leaving Neverland” or last year’s “The Tale,” it goes to the human tragedy of sexual abuse. What Perkins presents here is two harrowing stories in one. First there is Alex’s experience of losing his memory. Already the details are enough for a whole other documentary onto itself. The disoriented feel of lost memories is captured very intercutting of old family film reels with Alex’s testimony. Memory loss this severe isn’t just about forgetting a face, but about re-learning how to ride a bike, what your home looks like or even where you’re from. Perkins allows the narrative to build in layers, at first making it seem as if it’s a mere story of recovering your mind. Alex recalls the fun of being told he has a girlfriend, in essence “losing my virginity twice to the same woman.” The brothers’ father seems like the villain of the tale, a repressive bully who would command the siblings never to go upstairs. Old family photos show a man with a stone-cold face with the aura of being unapproachable.
Then when Alex finds the photo of him and Marcus nude it all unravels and “Tell Me Who I Am” becomes something else. It takes on atmosphere of discovering that photos and perceptions you once had are being altered. For Alex the nightmare became that not only was he piecing together his memories but that Marcus had essentially provided false versions of history to him. Marcus painted an idealistic portrait of a functioning, normal family, finding practical excuses whenever Alex asked certain questions. The universal power of this story is that it connects to any moment in our lives when uncomfortable truths are discovered, when the idea we had of a moment or person is altered forever. At first Marcus can only confirm to Alex that they were both sexually abused as children, but he stops himself from giving further details. He just can’t do it. Few documentaries this year have given us someone forced to be so open about something so painful on camera.
It could have ended there, but Alex is persistent. From his 30s until now he has obsessively searched for clues and accounts as to what might have happened. Perkins evokes the darkening sense of a haunted past with shots of the siblings’ manor, photographed in baroque shadows. Hallways and rooms look both mournful and lonely.
And then, finally, Marcus decides he will tell Alex everything. Up until this moment the two brothers have spoken to the camera separately, but now they sit at a table facing each other. No need for any fancy editing. What they will say face to face is riveting enough.
“Tell Me Who I Am” is sad and angry, haunted and wistful. All it needs is two men sharing what they carry inside their minds to give us a window into the fragility of life itself. Alex Lewis has been through a journey that would shatter many personalities, and we wonder if after the final revelations if he can ever be truly whole. What a brave document, full of scars and courage.
“Tell Me Who I Am” begins streaming Oct. 18 on Netflix.