Israeli director Guy Nattiv’s live action short film “Skin” took home the Oscar in its category on Sunday. Nattiv, who has lived in the United States for five years, began his acceptance speech by wishing a “Layla tov—a good night” to his countrymen in Israel. With his award in hand, he told the audience at the Dolby Theatre: “My grandparents are Holocaust survivors. The bigotry that they experienced in the Holocaust, we see that everywhere today, in America, in Europe. This film is about education, about teaching your kids a better way.” He dedicated his award to his 5-month-old daughter.
“Skin” is a stunner of a film that packs a wallop at the end that I—and judging by the reaction of the audience around me—didn’t see coming. The film focuses on Troy, the young son of Johnny, a violent white supremacist neo-Nazi. In the film’s beginning scene, Johnny gives his son a buzz cut that at once feels ominous and significant. The film then cuts to an idyllic spot by a lake, where Johnny puts an assault rifle in Troy’s hands to show off his shooting skills. The boy hits the mark, and his father is jubilant in front of his fellow gang members. With high fives all around, it’s clear to the audience that this adorable boy has been born into disturbing circumstances.
The film’s violence is alternately kinetic and bubbling just beneath the surface. In an interview with Awards Daily, Nattiv traced the genesis of “Skin” to a newspaper article about a neo-Nazi father in Arizona who taught his son how to shoot Mexicans at the border. “This unfortunate cycle of violence,” said Nattiv, “evoked this idea of a short.”
Nattiv incorporates the gist of the story in his short film. After a day of partying and target shooting, Johnny and his gang stock up on beer in the local supermarket. Across from the checkout line, an African-American man makes playful eye contact with Troy and smiles at the boy. The connection sends Johnny into a heated rage, and he summons his gang to beat the man almost to death in the parking lot.
Troy and the African-American man’s young son witness this horrible spectacle. Nattiv makes the point, albeit heavy-handedly, that this cycle of violence will continue and the virulent racism of this moment will be passed on to the next generation. In a “The Twilight Zone”-style ending, Nattiv pushes the boundaries of what revenge can look like.
In addition to the award-winning short, Nattiv and his wife, Jaime Ray Newman, have produced a feature-length version also called “Skin.” The longer film tells the story of Bryon Widner, played by Jamie Bell, the son of a neo-Nazi leader who was raised in the white supremacist movement. At 14 his body became a canvas on which hate-filled symbols were inked. As a young adult, his outside appearance no longer matched his inside feelings. Widner broke free of the white supremacy movement and was determined to go through the painful process of removing all his tattoos. A 2011 documentary called “Erasing Hate” showed Widner’s painful yet iron resolve to sever all connections with his hate-filled past.
Early reviews indicate that “Skin” the film sends a powerful message that white supremacy has become a force to be reckoned with in this country. It recently garnered a prize at the Toronto Film Festival, and Trudie Styler, Sting’s wife, signed on as a producer. The film will be released nationwide in July. In the meantime, Fox Searchlight has acquired “Skin” the short and plans to make it available for streaming online (it’s already for sale on iTunes).
Nattiv’s next project, which begins filming later this year, is a film based on his grandmother’s life. She was a Holocaust survivor who, at one point, ended up as part of a cult in Virginia. He said in a recent interview, “[This movie] is about the pursuit of happiness at all costs.”