by Thom Yee
So we’re at about the halfway mark of the Edmonton International Film Festival. The 31st one in fact. Exciting, isn’t it? Or maybe not, I don’t know, apparently some of you out there don’t obsess over movies the way we do here at GOO Reviews. Apparently some of you out there can’t find time to see more than five movies a year. Apparently some of you don’t measure time based on what kind of Star Wars movie is coming out this year (i.e., this year’s The Last Jedi is a mainline saga film, so 2017 must be an odd-numbered year; last year’s Rogue One was an anthology side story, so 2016 must have been an even-numbered year). Apparently some of you have a firmer grasp on life and reality (and basic maths) than that. Fancy you!
Anyway, it’s the Tuesday in a week-plus-long Edmonton festival celebrating films from all over the world that began last Thursday and ends this Saturday, so that means there’s still plenty of time for you to take in a finer film in a more cultured setting. As my colleague alluded to in our movie previews from last week, there’s just something special to taking in a film alongside enthusiasts who have actively chosen a piece they’d like to see rather than just watching a movie among the rest of the hordes who happened upon the theatre because they had time to kill. I’m not going to say that that something is a badge of distinction or a thing to be proud of, but I will wager to say is that, if you do decide to take in one or more of the many films at this year’s fest, you may just experience something a little different than what you’re used to. You may find yourself a little more caught up in the moments of these films as if the spirit of the crowd around you has taken on a life of its own. You may find yourself laughing or crying more loudly and truthfully than you usually allow yourself to in public. There’s a chance you may even be a better person in the end.
All because you went to a film festival.
Now here’s what I saw from the fest:
Skin for Skin
What’s it about?
“In 1823, the Governor of the largest fur-trading company in the world travels across his Dominion, extracting ever-greater riches from the winter bounty of animal furs. In his brutal world of profit and loss, animals are slaughtered to the brink of extinction until the balance of power shifts, and the forces of nature exact their own terrible price.”
I don’t know if things are still this way today or if it’s how these subjects were taught before my time, but when I was in school and learning about our nation’s history, from Sir John A. Macdonald to Louis Riel to the Hudson’s Bay Company, the one theme that came through clearly from all of those social studies lessons is that everything used to suck. Granted, that’s the conclusion I’ve come to through many of the things I’ve learned, but looking back at history, whether it’s ours, yours or theirs, most of us can quite easily find significant moments of unbelievable cruelty being very commonplace. Part of that is probably just the march of time and progress, but hopefully the bigger part is that we’ve learned from the mistakes of the past.
Learning about the fur trading of past centuries was a very easy thing to recognize as a horrible practice back in my school-aged days, a practice that made an industry of brutalizing animals for comfort and fashion, and I don’t think anyone coming out of the school system as I knew it thought highly of our nation’s place in the trade. If you guessed just from the title that fur trading was going to be the subject of Carol Beecher and Kevin Kurytnik’s Skin for Skin, good for you, you were probably paying at least a little bit of attention in school.
Is it any good?
In nearly every way that matters, Skin for Skin is just about perfect, and that especially includes its run time at just over 15 minutes. As much as we can all recognize that the fur trading industry of the past was a regrettable part of our history, it’s not necessarily the kind of subject that can, on its own, sustain an entire feature-length piece. In less time than your average sitcom, Beecher and Kurytnik manage to tell a complete story at a near-perfect pace.
Told in animated form, Skin for Skin begins with the image of a recently downed moose, lying in the water and struggling to breathe, before proceeding to show us the work of the men in the fur trade, hunting bears, rabbits, wolves, and whatever other animal’s pelts might turn a profit, and it’s all the type of imagery that’s just as arresting for its cruelty as it is for how well it’s rendered. What’s happening on screen may be distasteful, but it all looks really good, and not just in that “Oh, it’s just a Canadian production, they’re trying their best” way; the animation is truly world class. One sequence in particular, showing us what the life of a beaver, pulled suddenly from the water, ultimately amounts to in this type of world felt especially powerful to me.
Soon enough, the weather turns for these men and it becomes clear what the cost of all of this death-bringing really is. At 15 minutes there isn’t a lot more to explain about Skin for Skin, so I won’t belabour the short’s premise any more with words other than to say that if you think you can skip this one, I would recommend otherwise.
So should I see it?
Skin for Skin is a powerful short film, beautifully animated and told briskly but effectively with more than a few moments that will make you flinch. The only real mark against is that it’s subject matter is something most of us are already familiar with, but in some ways it’s that very familiarity that should make you think for far longer than the film’s 15-minute run time. The fur trade was awful, but… it’s not like people don’t wear fur today.
We’d like to think we learn from the past, but sometimes that thought alone is enough to make us forget what the lesson really was. Do we ever really learn? Do we ever really take lessons to heart? Or do we, more often, compartmentalize, picking out only what we think is important and discarding the rest as what we think we already know? Are we doomed to repeat history because we ignore it or will we repeat history because we think we’ve already learned from it?
Skin for Skin, which recently won the awards for Best Overall Short and Audience Favourite, Narrative Short at the Calgary International Film Festival and Grand Jury Award for Best Short Film (Animation) at EIFF, will be showing at the Edmonton International Film Festival as part of the Short Stop: Canadiana collection this Friday at Landmark Cinemas. Tickets will be available in-person or online.