Broderick Fox's honest exploration of body issues has its Canadian debut

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The Skin I’m In

Rating: Four stars (out of five)

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Broderick Fox never imagined he might someday be mistaken for Antonio Banderas.

Online searches for his documentary The Skin I’m In, which makes its Canadian première at the Victoria Film Festival, often yield references to The Skin I Live In. In that twisted thriller directed by Pedro Almodovar, Banderas plays a sinister plastic surgeon who holds a beautiful woman captive to test a synthetic alternative to human skin he’s perfecting.

Fox’s unflinching low-tech reflection on years of bodily shame, addiction and other issues that inspired him to transform his body into a living canvas seems worlds apart from Almodovar’s sleek, creepy meditation on beauty. But a Spanish film scholar who once mentored Fox noted the films resonate in similar ways, he said.

Both, for instance, explore the nature of identity. In Fox’s case, it was the spiritual and sexual ramifications of identity that would unite him with Rande Cook, the Victoria-based First Nations artist who created the full-back tattoo that memorializes Fox’s experiences.

“There are a lot of people who might write the film off as narcissistic,” admits Fox, 38, who worked on his project for six years and titled it early on.

“I think there’s a natural impulse for us to preserve or document our lives. People are divulging personal information more and more through social media in real time. I like to think this piece has a present-tense immediacy.”

Fox, a gay Los Angeles-based filmmaker with various personas — “son, Eagle Scout, valedictorian, professor, filmmaker, club kid, drag queen, hustler and alcoholic” — hopes his journey as documented in the film will encourage dialogue about “aspects of self we rarely talk about” and issues like identity, trauma, addiction and alienation.

The Skin I’m In is a deeply personal portrait enhanced by lots of archival film and home video, including opening footage of the articulate filmmaker’s near-death experience.

In 2005 at age 31, Fox was found unconscious on the tracks of a Berlin subway station, with his head split open and a lethal blood-alcohol level of 0.47.

Fox, who teaches film production at Occidental College in Los Angeles, narrates his own story as he skillfully peels back layers of himself, many long-suppressed. It reveals a human work-in-progress — scars, bumps, bruises and all.

It’s an achingly honest exposé, with Fox incorporating photographs of his younger self; grainy home-movie clips of a young, dramatic “Brody” singing Where Is Love? from Oliver!, or mimicking Maury Povich as a high schooler; and candid interviews with his mother Linda, a retired librarian. Fox also reflects on his “coming out” to friends and family during the AIDS crisis, how he never felt that his inner self matched who he was on the outside, and the personas he developed, including Rick, a club kid and “erotic haircutter,” and drag queen Dina Brown, to deal with his repression.

It also touches on his anorexia, cutting, compulsive exercise, smoking and other reactions to growing up different.

Technical highlights, or what Fox terms “the poor man’s” computer-generated imagery, include symbolic double-exposure images of his alter-egos, a creative editing technique inspired by avant-garde filmmaker Maya Deren’s 1943 experimental short Meshes of the Afternoon.

The film’s glue is Fox’s creative collaboration with Cook, the Kwakwaka’wakw nation chief from Alert Bay who created his striking tattoo, and Zulu, the Los Angeles-based tattoo artist who applies it during several long sessions.

“I didn’t put anything on you, I brought it out of you,” the tattoo artist, a dead ringer for Ving Rhames, tells him.

“Part of this film is me trying to link my head back up to my body,” says Fox, who admits he was nervous when, after getting sober, he travelled to Victoria to meet Cook, whom he’d discovered online.

He was unsure how the native artist would react to his unusual request.

“I was more flattered than anything that he’d ask me to do something of that grandeur,” recalled Cook, whose design incorporates traditional native motifs, including the raven, representing the addict who “wants it now;” the frog, “used for witchcraft but a symbol of renewal;” and the serpent creature, or Sisiutl, which signifies the yin and yang and brings balance.

“There was no hesitation,” Cook said. “I put my faith into Brody because he had put so much faith in me.”

Despite their different backgrounds, the two men have become inexorably connected since the transformative ritual.

“Meeting Rande was one of those special moments where I acted on heart and intuition rather than from my brain,” said Fox, who was initially concerned he might be accused of “appropriating” the Pacific Northwest mythology that spoke to him.

“What does it mean for someone to put a large indigenous piece onto their body with traditions that aren’t their own?” asks Fox, who first became fascinated with the body art of aboriginal peoples during a family trip to Kenya when he was eight.

Upon reflection, Cook, 35, says he realizes he has more in common with Fox than he first thought.

“I’ve been on my own journey and we both have grown,” he said. “It’s a universal thing. We’re all trying to find our own way. For me it was coming from a small reserve and making my way in the big city, and issues around my cultural background.”

The Skin I’m In, says Fox, acknowledges that everyone has issues and he hopes it might help others mirror his own success.

“People gasp and say, ‘Omigawd, you’re so lucky. Alcohol could have killed you,’ ” he says.

“It was humbling. But a fate worse than death would be continuing to live in that cycle of alcohol consumption. That would be my idea of personal hell.”

Fox and Cook will do a post-screening Q&A, and Cook’s art is being featured at Alcheringa Gallery during the festival.

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