Gregg Araki throws himself back on the hotel bed for a moment. He is clearly jet-lagged.
The 45-year-old gay director, once declared a maverick of New Queer Cinema for his earlier features The Living End and Totally F**ked Up, had landed in Sydney earlier in the morning for two days of interviews about his new film -“ only to find it at the centre of a censorship row.
Mysterious Skin, based on Scott Heim’s novel of the same name, tells the story of two 18-year-olds -“ Brian and Neil, played by Brady Corbet and Joseph Gordon-Levitt -“ dealing with the legacy of sexual abuse by a pedophile, their baseball coach, 10 years before.
Geeky Brian can’t remember what happened but wants to find out where those five hours stolen from his memory went -“ he thinks he might be an alien abductee. Lanky Neil, who does remember yet confuses Coach’s abuse with love, is a young, arrogant but na? gay hustler who turns tricks in the local playground.
The controversy was stirred up by the Australian Family Association’s Richard Egan who, without seeing the film, ridiculously called Mysterious Skin a how-to manual for pedophiles.
The Office of Film and Literature Classification is now reconsidering Mysterious Skin‘s R18+ rating. A reclassification would mean Araki’s sensitive, beautifully rendered film, which gives voice to the victims of pedophilia, would not screen in Australian cinemas.
The brouhaha has been the day’s main topic. Araki is deeply surprised that the storm over what has been described as one of the best films of the year by The New York Times should erupt in Australia, which he regarded as progressive and cosmopolitan and enlightened.
I’ve always know that this movie was controversial, Araki says. I’ve always known that it deals with very forbidden subjects in a very sort of truthful and uncompromising way.
Child sexual abuse figures are considerably under-reported through official channels but Araki quotes figures that estimate 25 percent of the US population were sexually abused as children. With statistics as staggeringly high as these, abuse becomes a mainstream problem affecting millions. Yet Araki believes society’s only way of coping with the topic has been to turn it into a clich?/p>
It’s all over the news; it’s in every TV movie and every cop show. Every storyline’s got an abused kid in it to the point where everyone’s become so immune to it. There’s no empathy. If someone says, -˜I was abused as a child,’ you say, -˜Oh, that’s terrible,’ but you don’t have any sense of what they are talking about.
This was echoed at Queer Screen’s recent Q&A screening with Araki when a man told the audience that he was speaking publicly for the first time about his sexual abuse 52 years ago. He congratulated Araki for showing the difficulty child sex abuse victims face in resolving what happened to them.
Yet the director credits Scott Heim’s novel as the source of the beauty and honesty in his film.
The thing about Mysterious Skin, the book -“ which blew me away -“ was that for the first time I thought this is really real, Araki says. You feel like it’s happening to you as you’re reading it.
So Araki decided the only way to tell the story was through the boys’ eyes, using voiceovers and subjective camera during flashbacks to the boys’ eighth summer.
That’s why Mysterious Skin is a very subjective, emotional journey. You are those boys, you are Brian and Neil and you go through everything they go through. It’s an intense trip but at the end of the day, very enlightening and very rewarding.
I think it’s a real testament to Brady and to Joe because as screen presences they are so sympathetic. You feel so much for them, they take you by the hand and lead you through the rough parts.
Filming the flashback scenes entailed much planning for Araki, who wanted to make sure that the two child actors portraying Brian and Neil as 8-year-olds would not be exposed to the true subject matter of the film.
Obviously, the kids’ parents had read the full script and knew exactly what the movie was about. They knew -“ because I had sat down before and shown them how every shot was going to work -“ that there were no surprises on set. It was a positive experience for all of them.
Araki wrote a separate script and shot a mini-movie in a movie for the two boys to act to to get the reactions I needed from them.
We had to do almost two movies. Bill Sage (who plays Coach) had to act in the movie for the kids and then act in the other movie -“ which was our movie (Mysterious Skin). He had to do double time.
The kids themselves knew the film was for grownups and it was about something they couldn’t know about yet, and that they wouldn’t be able to see the finished film for many years, Araki says. He added that since the film’s release one of the child actors had sussed out the film’s story and according to the boy’s mother is actually proud of the movie and happy to have been a part of it.
Pending the decision of the Office of Film and Literature Classification, Mysterious Skin is scheduled to open on 18 August.