Director Franco Di Chiera explains the inspiration behind the documentary, the challenges he encountered making it and what's next.
What was the inspiration behind this documentary?
The concept for the film came from principal writer Barbara Bernadini who had explored the subject previously for a science program in Italy with co-production company DocLab in Rome. I happen to be living around the corner from DocLab while on sabbatical in 2009 when I received a call from producer Andrew Ogilvie in Perth, Western Australia asking me if I might be interested in directing and co-writing the film. < br>
For some 25 years, my body of work has dealt predominantly with cultural identity so I jumped at the opportunity to meet Barbara and Italian producer Marco Visalberghi to discuss the project. Immediately, I could tell we had a shared vision and decided to work together through Andrew’s production company, Electric Pictures.
What do you like about making documentaries?
I like making all types of films because it’s an opportunity to reach people and make a difference. In the case of Skin Deep, it was a chance to dispel the myths about race and racism through science – namely, the evolution of skin colour. It’s also an education for me and it may sound like a cliché but it’s the personal journey of discovery that always drives me, to better understand the world. It’s a real privilege to meet such exceptional people who are often at the top of their fields – in filmmaking one is frequently working with inspiring human beings. The greatest gift was to meet people of so many different backgrounds from Australia to Europe to East Africa to North and South America. Kenya and Brazil were amazing – the former being the birth place of humanity and the later, one of the great melting pots on earth from a skin colour perspective.
Did you encounter any challenges in making this documentary and, if so, how did you overcome them?
Making this film was physically challenging. I was a cinematographer, a sound recordist and I travelled on 25 national and international flights in a five week period with 15 pieces of check-in luggage and equipment, not to mention carry-on luggage! Of course we had help in the more difficult places we went and we were backed up at home in Australia and in Italy by great production personnel. It was an exhausting schedule but they kept things going when things went wrong. They were always there for us – a phone call or email away. We really couldn’t have done it without them. In Kenya, we filmed in some remote areas. East Africa is one of the hottest places on the planet, so that was hard. The black-skinned talent we were filming were adapted to that environment, but we weren’t. It made me reflect on the many light-skinned Europeans living in Australia who are mismatched to their environment.
But it was also a complicated scientific story on what is perceived to be a very sensitive subject. So, it was difficult to condense it but in the end I believe we succeeded in telling a simple story with a complex heart, one that is accessible to a general audience. I think that’s quite an achievement, to make a fairly definitive program on the evolution of skin colour in 52 minutes. But it was a pain-staking exercise which lasted six months in post-production with various participating parties around the world having their input.
To preserve a vision, to give it a directorial stamp and make it visually interesting as well, is extremely difficult in the international environment in which most documentaries are now financed. Often different broadcasters want different things and it’s easy for a film to lose its visual style in the process. But somehow, I think the sense that this science program is also a film and a piece of art, still shines through. Some of the more striking visual devices and emotionally powerful content that were originally removed in the editing process, managed to find their way back in, allowing visual storytelling to have the proper role it deserves.
The film deals a lot with sun exposure and we had to walk a fine line between documenting the dangers of UV rays while espousing its health benefits – all of which provides an evolutionary explanation for the “human rainbow”. So, it is important that that we, as communicators, act responsibly in the way we deliver the message, particularly when there are health implications involved – skin cancer, vitamin D and so on.
How does the documentary relate to your past work?
There’s certain serendipity with this film. I was just about to move back to drama, which was my background originally and why I’ve done so many doco-dramas, when I was approached to do this film. And I thought to myself, I’ve spent a my whole career dealing with these types of subjects and I’m not going turn my back on it now just because it’s a documentary. In a way, the intention behind this film is identical to the one that was behind the first drama series I produced called Under the Skin (AFI Award Winner, Best Telefeature/Miniseries category) - to enlighten people about human diversity and that under the skin, we are all basically the same, both genetically and emotionally. Like so many of the scientists in this film, including Nina Jablonski and Keith Cheng, I wanted to make a difference, to break down barriers and help people to understand each other better and ultimately, to live in harmony regardless of skin colour.
Perhaps one of the nicest things was the opportunity to reunite with Andrew Ogilvie. We’d worked together on his first broadcast documentary, The Joys of the Women, he as producer and me as director. So, the timing felt right, to do my last documentary with Andrew before returning to drama. But I’m sure there will be more docos from us to come.
What are some memorable moments from making this documentary?
There are so many production stories one can tell, some for publication and some not for publication. But one thing is for sure, it pays to be nice to check-in staff at airports, it can save you thousands in excess luggage. And one other word of advice for film crews going to Kenya, make sure you have wads of cash for your excess luggage because not all airlines there have credit card facilities! Also, if you ever get the chance to follow the route of humanity’s migration out of Africa as we did during the course of shooting, evidence for the evolution of different skin colours becomes obvious to the eye. But now science can prove that, too.
I guess a story I could share that’s very touching, is that one of our crew has a mixture of South American, Swedish and African origins. And to see his connection to all those places and so many people of different skin colours was incredibly powerful. He became quite emotional at times. It made me think that if we all thought seriously about human origins, we too could share that connection because we all have a common ancestry.
What messages would you like the audience to take away with them from your documentary?
Race doesn’t exist. That racism is a relatively new phenomenon, a misconceived one that came about with the advent of modern science in the 1700s. That white skin evolved as a result of mutation among black-skinned people who had migrated out of Africa to low UV environments in Europe enabling them to survive. And finally, that the majority of human genes are the same regardless of skin colour. So, our differences are very superficial. Ultimately, it reinforces the fact that racism doesn’t make sense. It’s scientifically illogical.
What are you working on now?
I realised my dream of going back to drama. I’ve just directed my first dramatic feature film, the romantic comedy Big Mamma’s Boy, which also breakdowns a few cultural stereotypes through its story and casting. Whether its drama or documentary, it’s important to tell a story with heart if filmmakers are to make a difference. Facts alone don’t change attitudes, but empathising with characters that display the full range of human emotion, definitely does. I think Skin Deep has that humanity within a classic scientific story.