Three Identical Strangers | Docs/ology

Three Identical Strangers

Director: Tim Wardle

Runtime: 96 minutes

Imagine walking onto a college campus as a freshman and having people greet, hug, and yell at you at every turn by a different name. They seem to know you, but how could they? You’re a brand-new student.

That’s what began the bizarre story of Three Identical Strangers in 1980 and is the title for the aptly titled new film now playing in theaters.

Over the course of a few months, several phone calls, and a slew of newspaper articles the story of Eddy Galland, David Kellman, and Robert Shafran, 19-year old college students who suddenly discovered themselves to be brothers separated at birth for adoption, lit a media frenzy around the country. Their connection was undeniable — they sat the same way, smiled the same way, and even smoked the same brand of cigarettes!  

The film begins as an endearing, hopeful, and at times hilarious tale of the triplets — with a medley of news footage, home videos, old photographs, and interviews, expertly assembled by director Tim Wardle. But like most good stories Three Identical Strangers takes a darker turn as questions emerge about why the boys had been separated in the first place, and how they had spent nearly two decades unknown to one another. 

As the adoption agency attempts to deflect these queries, a more sinister explanation begins to take shape. Did this secret separation have a larger purpose? 

In the film as we witness the bonds of brotherhood begin to suffer over the years, we learn of the tragic death of one-time life of the party Eddy after a long battle with mental illness. 

While the families gather around the tragedy, they are confronted by news of a disturbing psychological study that had been discovered the same year — a study performed by Dr. Peter Neubauer where he secretly followed the lives of twins and triplets for years without the knowledge of the subjects, all with the help of the same adoption agency responsible for Eddy, David and Robert. 

The families had finally found the real reason behind the triplets’ separation. 

What follows in the documentary is a gut-wrenching story of deception that explains the abnormal number of researchers that had visited each brothers’ home throughout childhood — visits the families were told simply monitored the progress and adjustment of the children following adoption. But the real motive behind the data highlights a monstrous abuse of power. Wardle lets the tension linger in the story, forcing viewers to grapple with the ethical implications and emotional consequences of a scientist who chose to play with power and devalue countless children and their families, including these triplets, to simple subjects of his study, without their permission.  

Three Identical Strangers doesn’t require any embellishment; its monumentally joyous moments and horrifically dark discoveries stand to disturb viewers all on their own merit. It’s a film that hits every note of emotion and questions the very fabric of human nature in light of a story that is just as sad as it is joyful.  

— written by Angelina Danae