Asheville-based filmmaker Erin Derham’s Stuffed joins the ranks of documentaries on unusual professions and hobbies. Taxidermy usually brings to mind big-game trophy hunters and backwoods sheds full of deer skins, but this film busts that stereotype wide open with a variety of taxidermists, including a focus on the younger up-and-coming generation of “3D wildlife artists,” as one subject, Daniel Meng, calls himself on first dates to avoid coming off as a weirdo for his unconventional profession.
Dozens of taxidermists from across the globe are interviewed and vignetted for this film to capture the wide range of people who stuff and mount dead animals for a living. Allis Markham — who clearly has a keen eye for aesthetics, judging by the way she flawlessly adorns herself in pinup model-esque fashion and makeup — is a former marketing employee with a posh studio in the heart of the Los Angeles art district; Jaap Sinke and Ferry van Tongeren defy purist taxidermy, opting to take artistic license with portraying animals in exaggerated features and unnatural positions; and Daniel Meng got his start at the age of 8, scooping up roadkill to secretly practice the craft.
Stuffed challenges viewers to define taxidermy as a true art form and to show the artists as lovers of the natural world with the desire to educate and preserve through their art. The amount of time spent skinning, molding, sculpting and sewing each piece is astounding. Taxidermists must also possess the scientific prowess to understand the anatomy of each animal. It isn’t enough to simply stretch a zebra skin over a horse mannequin. Taxidermists must scrutinize each muscle and vein in meticulous detail, even when it doesn’t seem to have a huge impact on the outcome of the final product.
As much as this documentary educates viewers about a unique and unfamiliar world, the character development of each interviewee is lacking, perhaps in part due to the sheer volume of taxidermists highlighted in the film. I would have loved to see more of the artists in their candid day-to-day lives outside the world of taxidermy, and it would have been more interesting to explore more deeply one of the most interesting subgenres of taxidermy — rogue taxidermy, which involves creating fictional hybrid creatures out of multiple different species. Still, viewers are sure to come out of this 84-minute film with a greater appreciation and respect for a profession that likely previously felt distant and unfamiliar.
Screens Dec. 12 at 7 p.m. at the Fine Arts Theatre