‘Three Identical Strangers’ tell their story

The fascinating documentary, Three Identical Strangers by Tim Wardle, which opens in Israel on January 17, starts out like a dream and ends up more like a nightmare.

You may have heard the beginning of the story, but only this film tells the complete tale, with all of its inspirational moments and bizarre twists. It starts off when 19-year-old Robert “Bobby” Shafran arrives at a college in upstate New York in 1980 for the first time and is disconcerted that people seem to know him and greet him as “Eddy.” One classmate tells him he is a dead ringer for Eddy Galland, a student who had dropped out the previous semester. They the Galland family and it is clear that Bobby and Eddy are twins who were separated at birth: they are both adopted, were born on the same day and were placed with their families by the same adoption agency. After articles appear about them in the newspaper, they are ed by David Kellman, and it turns out that the three are in fact identical triplets.

Not surprisingly, the brothers appear on dozens of talk shows and are interviewed and written about everywhere. They move in together and become fixtures of the New York club scene, their antics reported on in gossip columns. Eventually, they open a Manhattan restaurant, Triplets Romanian Steakhouse. They all marry and have children. So far, it’s a great story.

Speaking in a recent telephone interview, Bobby Shafran recalled, “There was a media frenzy when we first met. People were happy for us, celebrating with us. The real story is not all the fluff and happy stuff.”

Eventually, they learned that they were part of a psychological experiment conducted by researchers to test the nature vs. nurture theory, without the knowledge or permission of their adoptive parents. The triplets were placed with three Jewish families of different socioeconomic standing: upper class, middle class and working class. In a particularly weird twist, each boy had a slightly older adopted sister, who was placed there by the same adoption agency. The triplets were the subject of extensive research their entire lives. They were filmed, taped, measured, photographed and interviewed, but kept in the dark about each other’s existence and the nature of this research – their parents were told it was simply a routine follow-up after the adoption. Some of those involved with the research are interviewed in the film, although the principal architects of the study are no longer alive.

When they learned of this research, the triplets wanted to see it. After a protracted legal battle, they were given access to a small fraction of the thousands of documents that were part of the research. The rest has been sealed until 2066.

Asked about what it was like to look through these documents, David said, “It was very, very disturbing to watch films of you as a child, performing tasks for the camera.”

In spite of the fact that it was difficult to view this material, the brothers are still curious to get a look at the rest of it. “On a much deeper level, I was hoping that this could provide some closure,” David said.

They all struggled with the knowledge that their lives had been a variation of The Truman Show, the movie where Jim Carrey discovers that his entire existence has been staged to create a television show. And for one of them, this struggle ended tragically.

Given that they had been through so much, it wasn’t easy to trust a director to tell their story, but Bobby and David said they were pleasantly surprised by Three Identical Strangers.

“It wasn’t sensational or distorted,” said Bobby. “It really captured what we’ve been through.”

The brothers have not been interviewed in decades and sitting down to talk for the film was cathartic for them.

“Tim just let us speak,” said Bobby. “It was great.”

When he heard that the film was finished, Bobby knew he wanted to see it with David. “I thought, I’m going to fly over and sit with you.” After that screening, they hugged the director and told him, “You came through.”

David was also pleased with the results, saying, “The most important thing is that it’s brought us closer.” They have spent time with each other at screenings, sitting through many Q&A sessions, and have also been getting together more to play golf and relax.

Audiences and critics have been equally pleased with the film, which has won 10 awards and is shortlisted for a Best Documentary Oscar nomination.

While Bobby and David hope that in the future they will get to see the rest of the research, sharing their unique story has been “a valuable experience. No one will really ever understand what we’ve been through, but the movie explains a lot of it,” they said.

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