“I don’t know who I am,” he says evenly. “Not just the story of who I am, but really who I am. The real me.”
For Alex Lewis these words are not an exaggeration or metaphorical, but literal. At the age of 18—as we come to understand in the film directed by Ed Perkins—Lewis sustained a traumatic brain injury in a motorcycle accident. He emerged from a coma with no memory of his previous life.
“I didn’t even know my own name,” he shares. “Everything had gone.”
Everything but one important detail. He recognized the 18-year-old young man at his hospital bedside as his twin brother Marcus.
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“Even though I wasn’t sure of what was going on around me,” he observes, “I knew a hundred percent that he was my brother and I could trust him.”
“It’s such an extraordinary opening premise for a story,” Perkins tells Deadline. “And that’s just the starting point for this film.”
Alex’s quest to regain his memory takes the twins—and viewers along with them—down an ever darkening path into deep family secrets. With no memory of his own, Alex relied on his brother to reconstruct every aspect of his past—what they had done as kids, who their friends were, what their parents were like. Marcus painted an idyllic picture of a happy childhood, which couldn’t have been further from the truth.
Clues that something might be amiss surfaced some time after Alex returned home from the hospital. The Lewis’s lived on a sprawling property in the English countryside, but despite the spacious quarters the twins were confined to a shed. They weren’t allowed keys to the manor house or access to their father’s inner sanctum.
“He’s at his own section so that he has his own drawing room, his own study, his own staircase to get to his own bedroom,” Marcus explains to Deadline. “And you wouldn’t ever go in there.”
“We were very frightened,” Alex adds. “He was a very scary man, for everybody he met.”
Their mother, too, was eccentric, a tall, gregarious woman with an intimidating aspect. After their parents’ deaths, as the twins were cleaning out the house, they came across something locked in their mother’s cupboard that would explode the myth of the idealized upbringing Marcus had spun for his brother. It was a mutilated photo of the twins as boys, strongly suggesting psychological and sexual abuse. Finding the picture forced Marcus to acknowledge the devastating past he had kept hidden from his brother.
Alex and Marcus explored their story of trauma in a 2013 memoir. It was reading about the book that first inspired Perkins to make his documentary.
“I’d read an article in a British paper and reached out,” Perkins recalls. The twins agreed to do the film, only to have second thoughts. “There were a number of times when when you guys gave me a call and said, ‘I’m really sorry, but we can’t do this. We don’t want to make this film. It’s going to be too difficult.’’’
Perkins, who earned an Oscar nomination earlier this year for his short documentary Black Sheep, says he wanted to create an environment where the Lewis brothers felt safe to share what they had gone through, if they ultimately decided to go forward.
“The most important thing was that these guys knew that they were in control at every stage,” he comments. “These guys have full agency to tell their story in their words at their pace.”
Years would pass before the cameras finally rolled.
“In a way that five-year gestation period it took to make the film, perhaps the best thing to come out of that was we were able to get to know each other really well and build a relationship of trust,” Perkins notes. “That allowed them to feel comfortable in the room talking in a way that I think it’s fair to say you haven’t talked before.”
The brothers’ hesitation had something to do with the fact that there were more family secrets to reveal beyond what was in their memoir–revelations Marcus had yet to share with Alex. They say the process has been a healing one for them. And emotional for viewers of Tell Me Who I Am, the brothers say, to judge from responses they’ve received beginning with the film’s world premiere at the Telluride Film Festival.
“Once we started meeting the audience and meeting people, then we suddenly realized that we’d made something bigger than we thought we had,” Alex says. “And the impact on other people, just in the small amount of people that have seen it, has just been—“
“Phenomenal,” Marcus jumps in.
“More than I could have ever hoped for,” Alex adds.
There were times when Alex felt his brother’s failure to tell him the truth about their past amounted to a betrayal. But now he sees it differently, feeling the rosy image Marcus concocted was meant to shield him from a horrible reality.
“I didn’t realize that until right at the end of the movie,” Alex affirms. “I had never realized quite what he was carrying. All the enormity of the personal anguish that he had to do for me.”
“Albeit the film inevitably has to go to dark and complicated places, we’ve always talked about this story actually being a love story between twins,” Perkins observes. “About how their extraordinary relationship has allowed them to survive. And we hope that audiences leave this film feeling hopeful and inspired by what these guys have done, because to bare your soul in the way they have is incredible. And I think it’s an enormous gift they’re giving to people.”
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