Australian filmmaker Rhys Graham painted a picture of art, tattoos and mortality with his short film Skin, which claimed the top documentary short honor at the CFC Worldwide Short Film Festival on Sunday. Here, he tells realscreen about finding his two subjects, artist eX de Medici and her tattooed subject Geoff Ostling, and Ostling’s quest to preserve her artwork after his death.
Geoff Ostling is a 62-year old Australian man who has been covering his body with floral tattoos by esteemed artist ex de Medici for the past twenty years. He believes the artwork she has permanently placed on his body deserves to be exhibited after his death, so he is on a unique journey to speak with curators, taxidermists and doctors to explore how to preserve his skin when he dies.
How did you find your subject?
The original idea for Skin came about through conversations with the film’s producers Tony Ayres and Michael McMahon who have known artist eX de Medici for many years. They invited me and two other filmmakers, Natasha Gadd and Amy McMahon, to direct films on art and the body for series of documentaries that they planned to produce. Primarily because of the nexus of death, beauty and obsession, I really wanted to pursue a film about eX and her relationship with Geoff Ostling who, I knew from reading about her work, she’d been tattooing for many years. I knew it would be a departure from other films that I had done, but once I had spent time with the subjects I knew that it would be a unique way of delving into ideas around tattooing, definitions of art and, of course, mortality, that would be, I hoped, intriguing and visually striking.
Was the telling of his story just another part of preserving his tattoos?
It wasn’t for me. I don’t think I would have undertaken the film if it was simply about the tattoos. I love the artwork and I love tattooing as an art but, to sustain a film, it had to be about much more than that. I found that both eX and Geoff think very deeply about mortality and have very unique ideas about how to live in the face of the inevitability of death. That’s really what compelled me as it’s hard to find an interesting way to explore those ideas. The content of the film could so easily be sensationalized, but by allowing the audience to slowly engage with Geoff, to hear him talk about himself as eloquently as he does, and then to see him reveal himself to the camera, it provided a greater sense that the journey would be across the surface of the skin in a way that wasn’t just about stepping back and making an aesthetic or moral judgment, but inhabited the ideas that are important to both eX and Geoff in their lives and in this particular collaboration. In this same way, we kept a very strict sense of portrait arrangement for each interview but then tried to reveal as much as we could within those arrangements. Like the body splayed out on the tables, or the moths that eX studies, or the vast symmetry of eX’s watercolors, the photographic approach was to have the same sense of fragile but symmetrical composition.
Was the process of speaking with the anatomist, curator and taxidermist already underway before you started filming, or did you help in that process?
Certain parts of the process were underway prior to the beginning of filming. Geoff and eX had spoken to curators and Geoff already had provided information to his funeral director and written his wishes into his will. However, once filming was underway it gave a bit of momentum to some of the other areas of interest like talking to a taxidermist and visiting Tokyo to see some of the already preserved skins. We also spoke widely with conservators and curators who didn’t end up on film to determine how complicated Geoff’s wishes might be.
What determined that Geoff’s story be told as a short?
I really love short forms and I love precision in storytelling and in docu (though I’ve definitely also been guilty of meandering in other films I’ve done) but, in this case, these films were commissioned for a half hour time slot. Initially, I really thought that this could have been a feature length film. Then as I began my initial research and filming I realized that the time limitations were going to be a huge creative freedom to me as it encouraged a greater degree of structural planning and of creating a framework for the story to unfold within. Making a more structured and contrived way to tell this story was actually, in many ways, closer to a ‘true’ way of exploring the content than simply observing or allowing emotions to guide me as I have done in the past.
Your film has gone international, at festivals like Tribeca and IDFA, and now the Worldwide Short Film Festival. What does it feel like to be involved in a festival entirely devoted to shorts?
It’s great to show within a festival entirely devoted to shorts. I’m really committed to short film form – I co-wrote a book on Australian short film Short Site and have made a number of short fiction and non fiction films – and I love what can be done with brevity and precision and audacity – all things that are inherent to short filmmaking. I also prefer to see documentary and fiction films side by side in short film programming – something which is not often done – as you get a really great collision of ideas in how fiction filmmakers and non-fiction filmmakers both manipulate how we experience a film, a story or a set of emotions or experiences.