Three Identical Strangers: Disturbing Shadows Beneath the Surface
Written by: Michael Mejia
When first-year student Bobby Shafran arrived on the Catskills campus of Sullivan County Community College in 1980, he was surprised, and maybe amused, by the warm welcome he received from students he’d never met as he moved into his dorm room. When they started calling him Eddy, he understood they’d mistaken him for someone else. And when another student, standing shocked in Bobby’s doorway, asked him if his birthday was July 12th, 1961, he knew something really strange was up. A few hours later he was meeting for the first time a twin brother, Eddy Galland, that he’d never known he had, and who’d also been a student at Sullivan the previous year. The crazy coincidence made the papers, snagging the attention of another New York-area 19-year-old, David Kellmann, who just happened to look exactly like Bobby and Eddy. Before long, the triplets, who’d been separated at birth and adopted from the same agency by very different families, were reunited and reveling in their new friendship as well as in their growing fame. All the major talk shows had them on, with hosts and audiences asking the same questions that seemed to beg for an uncanny, infant-like unity the brothers were happy to earnestly confirm. They look like big toddlers as they smile and answer: Yes, they smoke the same cigarettes. Yes, they like the same colors. Yes, the sure are nearly impossible to tell apart.
The preferences, the bodies, the motions all matched, even while their families didn’t. Bobby’s parents were well-educated and affluent, while David’s were blue collar immigrants, and Eddy’s were more middle class. It had to be the genes alone that determined who they were, and maybe who they would be. The boys moved into a swinging triple-bachelor pad in Manhattan together, partied in step with the times, and eventually went into business, opening a popular restaurant called, of course, Triplets.
“That’s when things began to get funky,” David’s wife tells director Tim Wardle, maybe thirty minutes into this astonishing documentary. The opening unfolds with a verve and playfulness that matches the brothers’ charisma and their demonstrative retellings of their discovery of each other, a tale they must have told thousands of times, but that’s nevertheless entertaining here thanks to Wardle’s use of varied materials and sense of timing in the editing room. Ultimately, however, Three Identical Strangers is a deeply affecting work of investigative journalism. Quickly getting past the sensationalism that first surrounded the triplets’ reunion story, Wardle injects a haunting gravitas into his film as he widens his circle of subjects and follows every available lead to get at not just how the brothers’ separation occurred, but why. The result reveals disturbing consequences of one of the darkest inquiries into child development we can imagine, while delving clearly and perceptively into the most human evidence in the discussion of nature versus nurture. It’s an incredible story, expertly and sympathetically told, and it shouldn’t be missed.
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