Review: Tell Me Who I Am
Max Ingleby finds Tell Me Who I Am to be a powerful documentary even if its existence raises some troubling questions.
Content Warning: This review discusses incidents of child abuse.
There are certain films that are deeply difficult to watch, that challenge the barrier between the audience and the individuals on screen, that questions notions of privacy and the profitability of tragedy. Tell Me Who I Am is both a devastatingly powerful documentary and an ethical conundrum.
The true story starts with eighteen-year-old Alex, who crashes his motorcycle in 1982, enduring severe memory loss after hitting his head. The only person, the only thing he remembers in fact after waking from a brief coma is his identical twin brother, Marcus. Everything else is totally foreign and unknown. His brother has to teach him to tie his shoelaces, to relearn how to ride a bike, to tell him he has a girlfriend, to introduce him to his best friends. Alex comes to believe he had an idyllic childhood, accepting everything his trusted brother tells him as absolute fact. But, years later, after his cold, short-tempered father and his loud, flamboyant mother pass away, he starts to realise something is terribly wrong. Why did the twins live in an outhouse in the garden? Why were they never allowed upstairs, or even to have a front door key? Why did they never receive presents at Christmas or birthdays, only to later find a huge pile of gifts in the attic, all lovingly sent to them by friends and relatives over the years, but never opened?
What proceeds is essentially a televised therapy session, in which everything is laid bare for millions to watch, and for Netflix to profit from.
Alex and Marcus, now fifty-four, unpack and process their interconnected lives in this slick, highly produced Netflix documentary. There are fairly tasteful dramatisations throughout, which intersect the footage of the twins separately confessing to the camera, staring back at you from the screen in an intense closeup, often colour graded to a sombre blue/grey. The narrative is neatly divided into three parts; the first is Alex’s perspective, the second Marcus’s, and in the third, they sit down together to reveal all. The decision to not include any other voices is wise, as the true focus is unequivocally on their relationship.
Getting into spoiler territory, the awful secret is that the happy family fantasy that Marcus fed Alex was just that – a fantasy. The two boys were horrifically sexually abused by their mother, a fact discovered by Alex when he found a naked photograph of the twins as children amongst his mother’s belongings after she died. They were both living a delusion that Marcus had fabricated. Marcus has admitted that the abuse happened, but refuses to tell Alex the details. What proceeds is essentially a televised therapy session, in which everything is laid bare for millions to watch, and for Netflix to profit from.
Yes, the ending is cathartic and empowering, but at what cost? I was tempted to stop watching as Alex heard the details of his own abuse for the first time. It made for disturbing viewing, almost like involuntary voyeurism into perhaps the most vulnerable moment of a complete stranger’s life. The documentary is without a doubt one of the most powerful things I have ever seen on a screen, but as I sat in the residual grief as the credits rolled by, a trailer for Bojack Horseman was queued to play in 14 seconds. It felt obscene. It is a brave, deeply poignant film, but its presence in the streaming era raises some deeply troubling moral questions.