The Skin I’m In
Documentary filmmaker Broderick Fox turns his camera on himself to record a journey that takes him to Canada, Germany, Boston, and Los Angeles -- and to the most interesting place of all: Within his own skin.
At first, "The Skin I’m In" seems as though it might be headed into self-absorbed YouTube territory, as Fox shares the story of a life-threatening incident that took place in Berlin in his early thirties. Deep in the throes of alcoholism, Fox either fell or jumped onto the tracks of a subway station. This is terrible, of course, and speaks to some form of deep and intense personal problem; but is it worth setting out for public view?
Fox is still in his 30s, but his life has been packed with adventures in the geographical sense as well as the intellectual and spiritual senses. After relating his fall in the subway, he takes us on a trip to Canada, where he presents an unusual request to First Nations artist Rande Cook: Will Cook, drawing on the tribal mythologies that inform his work, design a tattoo for Fox?
Cook is magnanimous in granting this request; with the design in hand, Fox heads back to Los Angeles, where he commissions tattoo artist Zulu to ink it onto his back, a process that takes place in stages over the course of a year. How all of this ties together into a healing journey becomes crystal clear as Fox fills in multiple levels of narrative and meaning.
When a documentary filmmaker turns his lens upon himself, it’s something of a red flag. Are we in for a pity party? A roller-coaster ride of arrogance and insecurity? Are we about to take a tour through a mind that sees itself in exaggerated terms, either for good or ill? Mostly, are we going to be able to relate? Are we going to care about the story we’re about to see?
The answer, in this case, is that Fox isn’t simply talking about himself. More to the point, he’s not simply talking to himself and asking us to eavesdrop. Even when, through camera tricks, he appears to be in conversation with his double, what he’s saying is intended to resonate with the viewer, not impose anything onto him. Fox accomplishes this aim by tying his own experiences to a sense of the universal, using humility and charm, always with a disarming, forthright honesty.
Fox allows the documentary to open up and breathe, and in doing so, composes a lyrical film built out of layers, with the tattoo occupying only the most superficial of those layers -- that is, the tattoo lives on the "skin" of the film, just as it lives on Fox’s skin, but it emerges from depths that are dark and perilous. The light to which the filmmaker, and his film, ascends is warm and enveloping.
Many dysfunctional behaviors led to Fox’s fall on those train tracks, and from that low point he faced a long, gradual climb to mental and emotional health. Determined to turn his life around, the filmmaker slowly rebuilt his psyche and his confidence; that he takes the time to lay out for us his state of disarray only makes his eventual triumph that much more heartening.
This documentary may take the camera-as-confessor approach that our online culture seems to foster, but Fox the filmmaker knows how to take the stuff of memoir and fashion art. His transformative journey is remarkable, and perhaps unique, but parts of it will be recognizable to many viewers; moreover, this film may well become part of the healing paths of those who sit with Fox, in a darkened theatre, to share in his journey.