POVERTY: Inside the microcosm of a Portuguese tannery, director Inês Gil presents a story of decline among those on Europe’s fringes.
Melita Zajc
Melita Zajc is a media anthropologist and philosopher. Regular contributor to Modern Times Review.
Published date: May 3, 2020

Unskinned is a touching and minimalist portrait of two women ­- Carla da Costa Leandro and Lúcia Ferreira Pais – who work in a Portuguese tannery. It offers a rare insight into the conditions of production in the European leather industry, showing how changes in social and technological treatments of animal skin also imprint on the skin of those processing it.

Few consumer products are as immersed in the culture and charged with diverse symbolic meanings and controversies as processed animal skin. Just think of the legendary erotic novel Venus in Furs (1870) by Leopold von Sacher-Masoch, or the eponymous form of fetishism. Or, a more recent example, the protests where activists covered themselves with blood against the fashion industry’s use of leather. Arguments that the technologies of animal skin processing have significantly improved in recent years are often brought up in its defense against, so-called, ecological skin and fur. The tanneries are more like offices nowadays, says a man at the beginning of this documentary. But the tannery in Beira Alta, we are about to see, is not one of them.

Colonial history

The film’s narration intelligently focuses on Patricia, a young woman who used to work in the tannery, which helps the film achieve several objectives simultaneously. Her sudden and unexplained disappearance makes people in the community more eager to engage in conversation. In the tradition of the best Hollywood fiction, starting with Hitchcock’s The Rope (1948), her disappearance acts as the key event, around which a sense of belonging and community articulates. The absent Patricia also serves as a vehicle through which broader cultural, social, and political contexts are introduced. The permanent state of sadness that neither leaving nor staying relieve, poetically described by the musicians of Cabo Verde, a centuries-long Portuguese colony and other cultural centers of the Global South, is strongly felt in the community of Beira Alta. As Patricia’s personal history is revealed, a direct link to Portuguese colonial history is established, proving that, not only, did colonialism spread poverty in the colonies, but was …

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