×
You will be redirected back to your article in seconds

‘Tell Me Who I Am’ Navigates Emotional Minefields of Documentary Filmmaking

Like all great documentaries, Netflix’s “Tell Me Who I Am” focuses on a unique situation but makes it universal. The Oscar-potential film centers on twins Alex and Marcus Lewis. The 18-year-old Alex went into a six-week coma after an accident. When he awoke, he didn’t remember anything about his life, and didn’t recognize anyone — except his brother. So Marcus began filling him in, painting an upbeat picture of their youth.

The doc, from director Ed Perkins and producer Simon Chinn, challenged that picture. An outgrowth of the twins’ 2013 book of the same name, it taps into primal issues of trust, memory, family, cruelty, kindness and healing, and the secrets we hold, even from those to whom we are closest.

Marcus had filled in a few facts about their childhood with the book. But even when he started the film, he wasn’t ready to be completely open. His brother Alex said, “That five-year gestation period was not by design, but it was necessary to build the trust.” Alex had told the director, “I need my brother to give me everything so that I can move on.”

Because they’re English and reserved, and because humans sometimes have trouble opening up to those closest to them, “Marcus had no idea that’s how his twin felt,” says director Perkins. “It was a challenging position. So we tried to create a safe space so they could have conversations they’d never had.”

In the back of everyone’s mind was the question of what was unspoken. Chinn points out, “Marcus kept challenging Ed, ‘Why should I talk about this?’ Ed, to his credit, kept shifting responsibility back to Marcus saying ‘You don’t have to.’ ”

Marcus says, “It wasn’t until the movie came along that I realized I hadn’t really given Alex anything. In the book, it was all very general, a few facts. Alex wanted more. I had no intention of giving the speech that I give in the film, but it just came out. Ed facilitated that.”

Filming and editing were hard on the twins, but also affected the filmmakers. Director Perkins says: “You always feel an attachment to your subjects, but this was harder because we spent so many years getting to know these two. It’s the first time I’ve ever cried behind camera.”

Alex says the film provided “absolute closure,” in ways that their book didn’t. Marcus says, “I feel free,” after withholding details for decades. “We hope that it starts conversations, where other people can talk about their experiences.”

When they first discussed the film, Marcus turned to producer Chinn and said, “There are years of hurt here. So you have to look me in the eyes and tell me you’re gonna make something amazing.” In “Tell Me,” that promise was fulfilled.

Popular on Variety

More Film

  • Nederland, Amsterdam, 20-11-2019-Opening Night in CarrÈ

    Gender Parity, Inclusion and Young Talent Take Center Stage at IDFA Opening

    The 32nd International Documentary Film Festival Amsterdam (IDFA) opened Wednesday with gender parity, inclusion, and young talent front and center. Twenty-one year-old Canadian-Vietnamese director Carol Nguyen — whose short “No Crying at the Dinner Table” screens at the festival — kicked off the evening, reflecting IDFA’s commitment to young talent and women filmmakers. Nguyen said [...]

  • David Goyer

    J.T. Petty to Direct Thriller Produced by 'Dark Knight' Writer David S. Goyer

    J.T. Petty is set to write and direct “Appetite,” a thriller produced by “Dark Knight” writer David S. Goyer and Keith Levine. “Appetite” follows a mother who investigates her daughter’s disappearance leading to inexplicable and terrible consequences. Casting is currently underway, and the movie is expected to start filming in early 2020. “J.T. has crafted [...]

  • Dexter Fletcher Bohemian Rhapsody

    Dexter Fletcher to Direct a Movie About Dracula's Henchman for Universal (EXCLUSIVE)

    “Rocketman” director Dexter Fletcher is attached to direct Universal’s “Renfield,” a monster movie centered on Dracula’s henchman and based on an original pitch from Robert Kirkman. “Rick and Morty” scribe Ryan Ridley penned the script. The film will be produced by Skybound Entertainment’s film team, including Kirkman, David Alpert, Bryan Furst and Sean Furst. In [...]

  • Anita Hill

    Anita Hill's Commission Launches Entertainment Industry Survey on Sexual Harassment

    The Hollywood Commission on Eliminating Sexual Harassment and Advancing Equality, led by Anita Hill, has launched a survey of the entertainment industry. Hill accused U.S. Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas of sexual harassment during his Senate confirmation hearings in 1991. Since then, in addition to teaching law and policy at Brandeis University, Hill has been [...]

  • Chinese actor Xu Zheng holds his

    China's Golden Rooster Awards to Take Place Annually

    China’s Golden Rooster and Hundred Flowers Film Festival opened in the coastal city of Xiamen with the announcement that the Golden Rooster Awards will be held annually instead of biannually. The Golden Rooster Awards have been held 23 times since they were founded in 1981. The event has been held biannually since 2005, when authorities [...]

  • Cinematographer Barry Ackroyd Jay Roach Bombshell

    Jay Roach on How 'Bombshell' Production Crew Re-Created Roger Ailes-Era Fox News

    “Bombshell” is a fast-moving exploration of the oppressive atmosphere at Fox News in 2016, when Gretchen Carlson (Nicole Kidman) and eventually, Megyn Kelly (Charlize Theron) brought down Roger Ailes. Considering more than 200 scenes were shot over 38 days, the film has an impressive runtime of 1:45. Director Jay Roach credits the work of his [...]

  • Little Women Movie

    Alexandre Desplat on Pushing the Boundaries With 'Little Women'

    The slate of awards hopefuls is new each year, but there is always a sense of continuity, of new contenders’ connections to the past. For example, Alexandre Desplat, a strong Golden Globes and Oscar possibility this year for his score to Sony’s “Little Women,” can trace the influence of his predecessors on his work. Growing [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content