Under the Skin, Documentary Short Film Review
Under the Skin, the 2015 documentary short produced through the University of Stirling, is a soft-spoken and moving piece which discusses the dangers, stigmas and catalysts of eating disorders in today’s youth. The film primarily follows the interview of a young Scottish woman with a severe eating disorder and the battles she has faced in her life because of it. Out of respect for the subject’s privacy, the woman is simply referred to as “L”. Along with L, several medical professionals in the field (seemingly also from the University of Stirling) are interviewed, providing factual insight to her heart-wrenching story.
The film opens on a striking shot of L backlit and in profile, successfully concealing her features without removing any of the humanity in her silhouette. It’s this creative twist on the usual blurred face and augmented voice (which we see in most modern Netflix docu-series) that is the first of several artistically strong choices made by director Josh Bird in order to preserve the audience’s connection to his subject. By using her real, un-edited voice and casting a halo-like aura of light around her fiery-red hair, the filmmakers highlight L as a character in this story, rather than simply hiding her behind her own words.
Throughout the film, there are conscious shifts between this artistically shot, deeply shadowed style and old-school documentary filmmaking techniques of interviewing well-lit subjects in identifiable settings (such as office spaces or clinics). Our scenes with L feel eccentrically inspired by the works of David Lynch or even Jonathan Glazer, with heavily stylized close-ups and experimental lighting techniques used to great effect. In contrast, our more straightforward interviews resemble the work of documentary-maker Jimmy Chin in their honest and up-front question-answer form. These two differing (yet complementary) filmmaking forms give an incredibly strong sense of setting between raw conversations with L and the more factual meetings with medical professionals.
Another heavily stylized technique used in the piece is the inclusion of everyday objects captured on a simple black background. These objects are used to animate L’s story, primarily her abusive childhood, in a far more subtle and moving way than simply having actors re-create the scenes being described. Rather than an acted-out scene of mother attacking daughter, the audience is instead shown a single broken wine glass, drops of red residue still clinging onto its sharp edges. When describing a child abandoned, a disheveled and beaten-looking teddy bear stares back at you one-eyed from the screen. These everyday items against a blank canvas give alarming weight and painful clarity to L’s words and add to the overall unique style of the piece, two of the many reasons why this documentary stands out from its genre contemporaries.
Overall, the film is—in both execution and narrative—an incredibly strong documentary piece, expertly juggling both information and emotional stakes. A deserving winner of the 2015 Royal Television Society Scotland’s Student Television Award for best factual film, it is a brilliant amalgamation of dramatic and factual story-telling. Under the Skin is a raw, subtle and eye-opening film—a sad lesson in the consequences of neglectful and abusive parenting, an informative documentary on the subject of eating disorders and a tentatively hopeful piece of art.