‘Skin,’ the Incredible Story of a Reformed Skinhead, Will Open LIFF

By RICK MELLERUP | May 22, 2019
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Surf City —  

The 2019 Lighthouse International Film Festival on LBI will open Thursday, June 6 with a screening of “Skin.”

The 118-minute narrative film, the first U.S. feature by Israeli director Guy Nattiv, is based on the experiences of Bryon Widner, who became a skinhead at the age of 14 and was a cofounder of the Vinlanders Social Club, a violent white power group in Indiana.

In 2006 Widner married his wife Julie, herself a member of the National Alliance, a white separatist organization. But after marrying they had a baby, left the white power movement and tried to start over. Leaving such groups isn’t easy – like the Mafia and street gangs, “once a member, always a member.” Widner endured years of death threats and harassment.

And starting over, entering civilized society and finding a job isn’t easy when your entire body, including your face, is a living billboard of hate and racism.

Widner wanted to have his numerous tattoos removed. But it wasn’t as if he was just erasing the name of a former girlfriend from a forearm. Having his tats removed was an expensive proposition and Widner didn’t have insurance or the cash on hand, especially since he and Julie were raising four kids, three from her previous marriage.

He eventually hooked up with the Southern Poverty Law Center. In exchange for providing the civil rights law firm with the details of the internal structures of specific skinhead hate groups, the SPLC found a donor willing to pay $35,000 for his facial tattoos removal. From June 2009 through October 2010 Winder underwent no less than 25 painful procedures at Vanderbilt University Medical Center in Nashville, each one leaving him with blisters that took weeks to heal.

Widner’s story was told before in a 2011 documentary, “Erasing Hate,” that aired on MSNBC. So why tell it again?

Turning Widner’s story into a narrative film allowed Nattiv to infuse more emotion than could be found in a documentary, especially when Jamie Bell, the British actor who made his name as a teenager in 2000 when he played the title role in “Billy Elliot,” agreed to play the role of Widner. Wow, from an aspiring ballet dancer to Ben Grimm/The Thing in 2015’s “Fantastic Four” through a turn as Abraham Woodhull, an American spy during the Revolutionary War in AMC’s “Turn: Washington’s Spies,” which ran from 2014 to 2017 on AMC, to a reformed skinhead, Bell certainly can’t be typecast!

“Bell brings a fully committed Method-school intensity to his performance as Widner, a vicious neo-Nazi raised by white supremacists and taught never to question their authority,” wrote Allan Hunter in a review in Screen Daily. “Prosthetics, weight gain and contact lenses are some of the tools he uses to further the transformation. Widner’s elaborate facial tattoos are a map of hatred. He swaggers and glowers, driven by a seething inner anger. His life is a booze-fueled swirl of sex, drugs and violence. This is a long way from the tender heartbreak of Bell’s touching BAFTA-nominated (British Academy of Film and Television Arts, the equivalent to our Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, the folks who give us the Academy Awards) performance in last year’s “Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool.”

Bell’s wasn’t the only performance Hunter enjoyed.

“Danielle Macdonald is exceptional as Julie, capturing both her fiercely protective relationship with her children and the weary vulnerability of a seen-it-all-before woman sizing up the risks and the rewards of a possible new relationship,” he wrote. “There is a lot of fine acting going on in ‘Skin’ but Macdonald is the one who disappears under the skin of her character and makes her feel real.”

Charles Bramesco, a reviewer from the British newspaper The Guardian, made “Skin” seem almost as out of date as “Turn: Washington’s Spies.”

“The brand of fascism on display in ‘Skin,’ Israeli film-maker Guy Nattiv’s first feature produced in the United States, feels increasingly remote,” wrote Bramesco. “Nazism is on the rise in the US, but it’s not all spitting and yowling from feral soldiers in training. They have cleaned themselves up and had slick haircuts in place of the standard skinhead look. They’re on TV and the internet and electoral ballots. Even if ‘Skin’ wasn’t drawn from true events that played out during the mid-noughties, it would feel entrenched in a recent past.”

Maybe. But an alternative way of thinking about “Skin” is that while Widner had his tattoos removed to escape from his past, today’s racists, who wore khakis and polo shirts as they participated in their ridiculous but insidious tiki torch parade in Charlottesville in 2017, are eschewing tattoos and bald heads to blend in with the American mainstream. Getting “clean” can go both ways, making “Skin” an important film in these increasingly turbulent times.

— Rick Mellerup


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