"Three Identical Strangers"

"Three Identical Strangers" chronicles the tale of triplet brothers who were intentionally separated at birth and adopted by different families. 

Have you ever wondered if, just around the corner or across the globe, there might be another you out there?

For three brothers at the center of Tim Wardle’s documentary, “Three Identical Strangers,” which won the special jury award for storytelling at Sundance, their discovery of who they really were came as a shock.

 The film is showing for a limited time at the Terrace Theater. 

In the film, the inconceivable story of Robert Shafran, Edward Galland and David Kellman unfolds using a series of tightly woven interviews, archival footage and surprisingly unencumbered re-enactments.

What happens when Shafran shows up at college, nearly 40 years ago, is nothing short of astonishing. Welcomed by fellow students with unusual warmth and familiarity, he soon realizes he has been mistaken for someone else, a twin brother he never knew he had. When Shafran and Galland eventually meet, it generates a media firestorm. But the story only gets more mind-boggling when Kellman realizes from a photo in the New York Post that he is their triplet, adopted by yet another family.

After an elated reunion, they become instant media sensations, interviewed by Tom Brokaw and Phil Donahue, clubbing at Studio 54, even appearing in a movie with Madonna. But as their adopted parents begin to ask more questions of the agency that separated them at birth, the story takes a dark turn as it is revealed that none of it was by chance. On the contrary, it was all by design.

"Three Identical Strangers"

"Three Identical Strangers" is playing at the Terrace Theatre through Aug. 2.

Last week, the film made its debut in Charleston with a screening hosted by Charleston Jewish Community Center Filmfest. After the screening, audiences were encouraged to stay for a short talk with Dr. Olga Brawman-Mintzer and Dr. Sudie Back, to ask questions and discuss the film’s themes.

Brawman-Mintzer has been heading research connecting the dots between mood disorders and traumatic brain injury in MUSC’s Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Science. Back is also a professor in the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Science at MUSC, whose research focuses on the treatment of substance use disorders and co-occurring conditions, such as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

One of the primary themes covered by the talk was the psychological impact of the kind of separation depicted in the film. Ultimately, one of the brothers commits suicide, having suffered from manic depression throughout his life.

Some audience members even wondered if it would’ve turned out differently if the boys had never found out about one another at all. While no one can answer that question, Brawman-Mintzer was able to offer helpful context for why the kind of experiment the three brothers were the subjects of was allowed to go on in the first place, and why, at the time, there was no real recourse.

She explained that it wasn’t until the end of the Tuskegee Syphilis Experiment, in which hundreds of rural African-American men were infected with syphilis and studied without treatment between 1932-72 (even after penicillin had become the recommended treatment for syphilis in 1947) that guidelines around medical research, as we know them today, came into existence.

With the publication of the Belmont Report in 1979, only one year before Shafran and Galland would first meet, a clear set of ethical principles, guidelines and commitments on the part of the medical community for ensuring the protection of human subjects of research was clearly defined.

Reaching further back into history, Brawman-Mintzer explained that before the Belmont Report, following World War II, there was the Nuremberg Code, which was developed to protect the rights of research subjects in response to the revelation of the Holocaust and the medical abuses orchestrated by the Nazis. It so happens, in a stroke of irony, that the doctor who devised the separation of the brothers in the film was an Austrian refugee who had escaped the Holocaust.

Charleston audiences can still catch “Three Identical Strangers” at the Terrace Theater until Aug. 2. 

In addition, the Charleston JCC Filmfest, which regularly partners with the Terrace Theater to highlight movies of interest to the Jewish community, will be hosting a screening of the documentary “Heading Home: The Tale of Team Israel” at 7 p.m. Aug. 1. The film recounts the underdog journey of Israel’s national baseball team at the 2017 World Baseball Classic.

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