Film-maker and scholar Tom Murray does not pretend there is a single “correct” way to explore his subject Douglas Grant, an Indigenous Australian human rights activist and first world war veteran whose richly eventful narrative inclines one towards that oft-used expression “larger than life”.
Nor does the director suggest the path he lays down is necessarily the right one. Marking a very interesting swansong for the late actor Balang Tom E Lewis, who plays Grant in dramatic recreations and also appears as a subject, the film – which premieres this week at the all-digital Sydney film festival – is part essay, part detective story, part historical and cultural treatise.
Introductory moments show an airborne camera cruising through clouds and across a blue sky, as we hear Lewis’s distinctive voice reflecting about “the dark forest of history” and how “some of us dead folks are recalled: as archive, as allegory, as a smokescreen”.
Murray then relocates to the ground, bringing us inside a rustic shed with corrugated iron walls and various bits and bobs strewn about the place, including an electric guitar and a shisha. The director introduces a different, softer, less practised voice: his own, discussing Grant’s story as being “like a portal into some essential truth about Australian and world history”, as well as “a vision for a more reconciled future for our kids”.
While acknowledging that Grant’s story has been mostly forgotten in history, Murray discovers a “curious collection” of people passionate and knowledgeable on the subject of his life, including his relatives, a historian and a film-maker intending to make a biopic about him. Using their insights as a starting point, Murray unpacks key parts of Grant’s story: an adopted child to white parents (his family were victims of a massacre), his life spanned many experiences, including fighting on the battlefront in the first world war, and a traumatic latter period spent grappling with alcoholism and mental illness.
The Skin of Others is not a simple and linear cradle-to-the-grave biography. It’s more a work of academia: a kind of growing, breathing investigation, constantly expanding its hypothesis, challenging itself and its assertions. At one point, about an hour in, Murray asks Lewis what he makes of Douglas being described in some historical documents as “white of heart and black of skin”. Murray’s overarching approach is more about open questions than closed statements; the process of learning rather than the drawing of conclusions.
The Skin of Others is aesthetically interesting albeit inconsistent, with several playful stylistic touches toyed with once or twice then never again. Late in the piece, during recreations of Grant’s later years, Murray deploys intense swirling backgrounds to illustrate his subject’s troubled state of mind. This harks back to the shape and form of filmmaking that reflected the psychology of its subjects: the cinema of German Expressionism and classics such as The Cabinet of Dr Caligari. A scene depicting the battlefield, on the other hand, uses close-ups of figurines of soldiers to a powerful understated effect: a sort of stop motion without the motion, instead concentrating on the lingering intensity of stillness.
Early on the director describes Grant’s story as “a great odyssey” and “a collage of pieces that would never quite fit together” – and his film, too, is perhaps best regarded as a fascinating melange. The Skin of Others has a lovely, sometimes thrilling energy to it; you’re never quite sure where the next assertion will come from – challenging history, for instance, or the director challenging himself, returning to the idea that this film is ultimately concerned with making connections.
The director encountered an unexpected additional challenge when Lewis suddenly died, turning The Skin of Others partly into a tribute about the late, great actor’s life. Very impressively, given how much ground there was to cover already, one leaves the film with a powerful impression of Lewis as an artist and an intellect; as a person fascinated by stories and compelled towards the process of artistic creation. And of course by the end of it we have learned a great deal about Grant, with the unspoken inference that there remains much more left to explore. Somebody make that biopic, stat.
• The Skin of Others will premiere online at Sydney Film Festival, which runs digitally from 10-21 June
Source: The Guardian