I sometimes wonder if, at some point down the road, we’ll run out of subjects on which to make documentaries. Surely, somewhere along the line, we’ll have made a film about everything. There’s a documentary about tickling, and one about making pipes; there’s one about practically any musician you can think of.
Some day, it turns out, is not today, as Stuffed just may be the documentary about taxidermy we never knew we needed. A glossy if brief exploration of a craft often misunderstood and stereotyped, filmmaker Erin Derham makes the process of skinning, gutting and stuffing once-living creatures of every shape and size an intriguing, impressive affair. At just 84 minutes, the film might feel more like an extended episode of something you might stumble onto on the Discovery Channel than a cinematic event, but Derham nonetheless manages a fairly comprehensive look at her subject matter.
Our entry point into the world of taxidermied creatures is Allis Markham, a stylish young woman who came to the trade when her corporate marketing job just wasn’t cutting it. She started showing up at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles to shadow their staff taxidermist, and the rest, as they say…
After taking a course in the skills and techniques involved, Markham took the bold step of launching Prey Taxidermy, her own boutique taxidermy service that prides itself on the style and substance of the craft. Markham’s passion and appreciation for her work is evident, qualities that we soon learn are not unique to her. From a taxidermy duo in Amsterdam to a young man in Ohio who’s been practicing his craft since he was eight, the one thing every taxidermist has in common is a genuine love for what they do. A love for details and the art of it, but also a love for the animals they work with, the role of taxidermy in the circle of life, and the small part each of them plays in preserving pieces of history. (There’s a particularly endearing story about the preservation of an ancient turtle who meant the world to his handlers.)
Over and over again, the people featured in Stuffed remind us that taxidermy is a compelling combination of a number of skills, from chemistry and science to artistry and design. From large, complex sculptures to delicate centerpieces, those truly dedicated to the craft commit years to learning their trade and revel in the satisfaction of a project completed with care. And yes, like any effort that requires a bit of talent, there’s an annual taxidermy competition, too. Derham doesn’t fall into the trap of turning Stuffed into a competitive narrative; instead, we get a glimpse of the lengths participants will go to create sculptures that impress their fellow taxidermists through a trio who work together to create an admittedly stunning piece featuring a young foal just learning to walk (think Bambi on that frozen pond).
It’s feasible that any one of the craftspeople featured in the film could warrant a documentary all their own; each of these artists has a story, a background and more than a bit of promise for whatever their career may hold. It’s a testament, then, to Derham (and her editor) that she’s taken a cue from her subjects and crafted something quite enjoyable by piecing together its parts.
Stuffed opens Friday at the Gene Siskel Film Center.
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