Inside the Amazing World of Taxidermy With Stuffed
Director Erin Derham finds beauty and lessons in animal art
By Richard Whittaker,
11:30AM, Thu. Mar. 14, 2019
Erin Derham never expected to make a movie about taxidermy. Before she started researching what would become her lyrical, poignant, and beautiful documentary Stuffed, she admits, she was “very ignorant about the subject.”
Now, she is right in the middle of the SXSW filmmaker experience with a movie that has touched audiences and demystified the process of post-mortem displays of animals. With two screenings for her taxidermy documentary Stuffed in the books, she said, “It’s so weird how different audiences can be in two days … The world premiere was like a dream come true. All of the first questions were about conservation and about these alliances that taxidermists have formed to preserve land, and today the questions were much more about the film and how we were able to get so deep into the narratives with the characters.”
Taxidermy can often be seen as as secret obsession, something for hunters and the ghoulish. Derham admits that before she started researching the topic, she did not like taxidermy at all. “I’m a vegetarian, and I’ve always been very anti-hunting.” With her roots in post-graduate research in environmental history, she originally planned the film to be an environmental piece – and in many ways, that’s what it became.
If taxidermy – the art of preserving animal remains – and conservation seem antithetical, then Stuffed is the film to reshape all those preconceptions. For many practitioners, taxidermy is not about trophies or death. It’s about preserving the animals so that people can understand and appreciate them. The taxidermists Derham studies love their subjects, studying them in life and death so that they are shown in natural positions, so that the muscles and motion are captured, so that aspects of their beauty that are hidden by speed or rarity or even the skin can be seen and understood and wondered at by viewers who may never see an ocelot or axolotl or alpaca in the wild. This is the art of seeing animals, and her subjects (like Allis Markham of L.A.’s Prey Taxidermy, who accompanied her to the SXSW screenings) are, in their own very real way, conservationists.
The biggest compliment in the screenings so far came in the form of a question from a mother. “She asked Allis how to nurture (an interest) in her 7-year-old daughter, who had this fascination with bones and skeletons. She was like, ‘I’m trying not to shame her, and I want to give her the tools to do what she wants to do.’ And Allis gave her this list of things available in Austin, like the [Texas Memorial Museum] and the local nature center and all the education her daughter could get for free. It was cool.”
Austin Chronicle: One of the important parts of this film is talking about provenance of pieces, and the environmental aspects of knowing the animals. How did you get your head around what you wanted to talk about, when taxidermy is such a huge and ancient topic?
Erin Derham: Since I have more of an academic background than a film school background, I am most comfortable when I feel like I know a lot about a subject. And that’s also how I’m able to get in with these people, and not just have them shut the door in my face. So I spent months researching as many primary and secondary resources as I could find, mainly to understand the history of where this comes from, how people do it, who mainly does it, how it’s changing right now – just really wrap my head around all of that.
Then I ran across the story of Carl Akeley, the father of modern taxidermy, convincing the Belgian government to create the first wildlife sanctuary in Africa, saving something along the lines of 200,000 acres for mountain gorillas to roam free and not be allowed to be shot. Then all of these things started to really confuse me: Who are these people, how are they doing these things, how are they so connected to nature and able to see these animals dead? Because that would make me sad.
So I decided that the only way to tell that story is through these people. So instead of the original idea of doing a story about taxidermy, it became a story about taxidermists.
True to form with docs, you bond with the people that you’re with the most, and Allis was the person that I met first, and she was the person that, every time I ran into a roadblock or a museum wouldn’t want to talk to me, she would get on the phone and make it happen. The L.A. Natural History Museum, they don’t do interviews: Taxidermy is typically always mocked, so they don’t let people come in to interview the taxidermists – and we got that interview. From there, I realized that the thing we need to talk about is the people, and the emotional connection to these animals.
ED: That’s something that Dave [Jackson of Conservation Ambassadors] brought up. He travels all over the country to elementary schools, teaching kids about nature, and he says, “I can’t bring a mountain lion into the classroom, but I can bring a mountain lion fur for them to touch and see and feel and get some kind of emotional response to that, in a way that they couldn’t normally do.”
That’s where I really bonded with this. I’m a vegetarian, not because I think it’s evil to kill animals and eat them, by any means. I just, from documentaries, know way too much about the meat industry. This is one of the things they bring up over and over again: Taxidermy is in your face, because these things have eyes. They’re telling a story, whereas you go through the drive-through and get a cheeseburger, you don’t think twice about that being animal cruelty.
We’re in this interesting situation that I think is very new, this idea that we’re at a high enough generation that we don’t need to be surrounded by death. That’s something somebody else takes care of, and that’s not good for our psyche. That’s when meat industries start being able to do what they want to do.
AC: You do touch on the rogue taxidermists, who see their work as more art pieces, and there’s a tension between them and the more traditionalists. I appreciate what both do.
ED: I’m the same. I loved filming all the underground scene in London. The rogue stuff, I really like it, and I didn’t originally want to include it in the movie because I was so enthralled with the academic side and really pushing home that these people are scientists and artists, that they truly understand chemistry and biology on an academic level, as well as knowing how to sculpt and sketch and shoot pictures for reference. I didn’t want anybody to think that I was mocking them, and I worried that if I included the renegade stuff, people would. But when we were in the edit room, my editor and the producers would tell me, “This is what everybody’s asking us – are we putting in that less traditional taxidermy – because that’s what people know.”
So we found Sarina Brewer on her website – we’d heard about her already as a really cool, interesting character who also fights pretty aggressively for animal rights, so she was a character we didn’t really have in the movie. So I went and spoke to her and realized they were right, it needed to be included because it is a documentary about taxidermy and taxidermists.