Q&A with Filmmaker, ELENA ROSSINI on “The Illusionists”, why she made the film and her hopes for its impact

Processed with VSCOcam with c3 preset*     *     *

After years of following along with and supporting Elena Rossini’s work to produce The Illusionists, we are thrilled to be able to host the public’s first full sneak peek of the film on June 7 in Baltimore. In advance of the event, we asked Elena about the documentary, the challenges she faced along the way and what’s next for her and the film. Read about her experiences below and be sure to RSVP for the advanced screening and panel discussion.

*     *     *

Q & A with ELENA ROSSINI

Q: “The Illusionists”is a film about the commodification of the body and the spread of westernized beauty ideals. Can you describe those concepts and share a bit about each of the main themes introduced in the film? What was the biggest surprise you encountered while researching the globalization of body ideals?

The central thesis of the film is that after millennia of puritanism, in the 20th century the body was “liberated” – mostly for commercial reasons – and has become “the finest consumer object.” After all, we all have a body and we all go through the process of aging. There is unlimited consumerism built around the idea that a youthful appearance is key to success and happiness. What I found most fascinating is the fact that Western media is so powerful – and persuasive – that it has exported beauty ideals to the rest of the world. So, if you are walking through the streets of Beirut, Mumbai, or Tokyo, you will see billboard ads that display images of Caucasian models with blue eyes, who look very different from the local population. In The Illusionists I show the powerful effects of this globalization of beauty ideals. One of my favorite quotes on the subject comes from British psychotherapist and author Susie Orbach. She says: “I think one of the tragedies that’s happening at the moment is that we’re losing bodies as fast as we’re losing languages. Just as English has become the lingua franca of the world, so the white, blondified, small nosed, pert breast, long-legged body is coming to stand in for the great variety of human bodies that there are.”

Q: What were the biggest barriers for you in getting this project off the ground?

Completing the film truly felt like a Herculean endeavor, as I did virtually everything on my own: from fundraising to writing, producing, directing, shooting and editing. I even took care of archival material and motion graphics – basically covering the roles of a dozen people. It was never my intention to do everything by myself! A famous French director mentored me and proposed to be executive producer: but no French TV networks wanted to give us funding (after 2 years of various meetings), so I was left to do things on my own… and thus started a Kickstarter campaign. When the film was finished and I looked for a celebrity to record the voice-over, some very prominent film people expressed interest in helping… but then disappeared, so I had to resort to finding someone through my own networks. There is an Italian saying that goes “Chi fa da se, fa per tre” – meaning “you’d better do things yourself rather than waiting for someone else to do it.”

In the world of film – which is such a collaborative medium – it’s very difficult to do everything on your own. So, when opportunities for collaboration arose, I was so happy! The audio part of the film – from the incredible soundtrack created by Pierre-Marie Maulini of STAL, to the sound mix done by AOC, to the voice-over recorded by the amazing Peter Coyote… it was truly a dream come true.

Q: What would you say makes “The Illusionists” different from other documentaries about the media portrayal of beauty ideals?

I pinch myself every time I ILLUSIONISTSfilmstillMILAN01have conversations with sales agents who have watched the film, because they invariably compliment The Illusionists for the fact that it has a global angle. Filming locations included the US, UK, Netherlands, Italy, France, Lebanon, India and Japan. This is definitely the film’s biggest selling point and what sets it apart.

From the point of view of storytelling and tone, I wanted to highlight the absurdity of certain advertising messages, so there are many sections of the film where audiences laugh out loud. I have to admit, I am not a big fan of documentaries that simply point the finger in an angry way or show depressing facts for 89 minutes and have a one minute uplifting section at the end, seemingly out of nowhere. I think humour can be a powerful teacher!

Q: What aspects of the film are you most proud of?

My favorite moments are definitely the most shocking and humorous ones. I love to hear audiences react out loud when I show the hypocrisy of beauty companies. One of my favorite sections is a split screen with skin whitening ads on one side, and self-tanning lotions on the other: those are ads by the same brands, but done in different regions of the world!

670-06_Illusionists_FB_twitter_sidebar_4_2015_P2Q: If you had to sum up your film in one word, what would that word be?

Subversive (in a positive way!). A friend has recently called me a “gentle warrior” – it was one of the biggest compliments I ever received. I love the idea of challenging the status quo, but in a way that’s not violent or angry.

Q: What is next for the film, and for you as a Director?  Are you committed to doing more work on body image and media literacy?

I have the utmost admiration for the career of activist, author and filmmaker Jean Kilbourne – whom I was super lucky to feature in The Illusionists. My dream is to follow her footsteps and continue working on The Illusionists, updating the film or doing follow-ups in the years to come. There is so much to talk about and the media landscape is constantly evolving: I’d love to go to new countries and produce a web series that continues to tackle these topics.

Q: What do you hope viewers will get out of attending this special advance screening event on June 7th?

I am so excited about this special advance screening because so far I have only shown the full film to friends, friends-of-friends, or sales agents. I am thrilled at the opportunity to have my first big sneak peek at The Center for Eating Disorders at Sheppard Pratt and to see how people who don’t know me will react. A friend said something that stayed with me. Weeks after a private screening at his place, he said, “After watching The Illusionists, I don’t see ads the same way anymore.” I loved hearing that. If I can manage to make audience members more aware of ads and their messages, I would have done my job.

 

Join us in Baltimore for the exclusive advanced screening of the film followed by a panel discussion with Elena and other experts on body image and media literacy.  Pre-registration is required to reserve seats.

Click the image below to watch a 4-minute preview of The Illusionists

YouTube Preview Image

You may also be interested in reading…

In response to Dr. Drew ~ Exercise bulimia is not a mild mental health issue

YouTube Preview Image

Recently the well-known celebrity internist, Dr. Drew Pinsky, shot this video for CNN iReport. During the segment he answers viewers’ questions about mental and physical health,  including one about healthy exercise and another regarding diet pill addiction in which he references underlying eating disorders as a serious concern.  What seems to be warranting concern is not the answers he’s giving to the viewers so much but the opening statement of the video in which he lightheartedly discloses his own struggle with something he refers to as a “mild” mental health issue called exercise bulimia.  Dr. Drew’s remarks were as follows:  

I got a whiff of exercise bulimia. You sort of exercise too much, and if you miss it you freak out. You have to constantly exercise.  I don’t feel right if I don’t do it.  But, you know, a little whiff of mental health issue never hurt anybody. 

In actuality, “exercise bulimia” is not a formal diagnosis but is a popular term often used to describe a subset of individuals with anorexia or bulimia diagnoses who feel compelled to engage in excessive exercise as a form of compensation for calories.  Some of the signs and symptoms associated with excessive exercise include:  

  • Engaging in exercise even when sick or injured
  • Becoming seriously depressed if you can’t get a workout in
  • Exercising above and beyond what would be considered a normal amount of time 
  • Refusing to build in any days of rest or recovery days
  • Inflexibility as to time of day and mode of exercise
  • Prioritizing exercise over social dates, family functions, work, or school
  • Intense fear at states of rest
  • Intense anxiety at situations where preferred method of exercise is unavailable
  • Intense guilt when forced to stray from exercise routine
  • Refusal to eat if unable to exercise
  • Defining self-worth in terms of exercise performance

Upon seeing the video above, The Center for Eating Disorders’ Director, Harry Brandt, M.D., had serious concerns regarding Dr. Drew’s statement about exercise bulimia and specifically the public interpretations that would follow. 

“In the age of the internet and personal blogs there will always be misinformation out there, but it’s particularly concerning to see high profile medical professionals, in this case an internist, minimizing what is a very serious disorder for a lot of people”  said Dr. Brandt.  He went on to say that “eating disorders are difficult to identify and treat partly because they are a socially normative disease.  Common symptoms like weight loss, dieting, negative body image and excessive exercise are all reinforced in our society.   This can make it very difficult for people with serious eating disorders to recognize their behaviors as problematic and part of a more significant mental health problem.  Statements like Dr. Drew’s trivialize a dangerous behavior and unfortunately make it more difficult for individuals to justify getting help.”       

Dr. Drew’s opinion that, “a little whiff of mental health issue never hurt anyone” is actually far from true.  Something that may seem minor or mild could actually be indicative of a full-blown eating disorder or might represent the first signs that one is developing.   Eating disorders have the highest mortality rate of any mental illness.  Without treatment anywhere from 5-20% of individuals with eating disorders may eventually die from complications related to their illness.  Individuals with eating disorders who struggle with excessive exercise in particular are at risk for the following health problems: 

  • Increased injuries such as stress fractures, strains and sprains
  • Possible permanent damage to bones, muscles, joints, ligaments and tendons
  • Increased susceptibility to infections, fatigue and exhaustion
  • Muscle wasting (the body begins breaking down muscle mass as a source of energy)
  • Fatigue
  • Dehydration
  • Osteoporosis (bone loss)
  • Arthritis
  • Menstrual irregularities and reproductive problems, including infertility
  • Heart problems

Excessive or compulsive exercise does not always occur alongside an eating disorder but when it does, it can provide some of the first signs that someone is struggling with food and eating. We encourage influential health professionals like Dr. Drew to be mindful of the messages they share with the public and to take great care not to normalize or trivialize behaviors that could indicate someone is suffering from a serious mental health problem.

*   *   *

If you are concerned that you are a loved may have an unhealthy relationship with exercise, please call us at (410) 938-5252 or visit our website at www.eatingdisorder.org .

Momentum of Positive Change: The AMA’s Photoshop Policy & Beyond

On its website, the American Medical Association (AMA) states that its mission is to “help doctors help patients by uniting physicians nationwide to work on the most important professional and public health issues.”  It speaks volumes then, that in their most recent press release, the AMA announced the adoption of a new policy to discourage the rampant use of photoshopping and American Medical Association Logophoto editing by advertisers.  In the policy, AMA cites the connection between unrealistic/altered images and adolescent health problems, particularly body image and eating disorders. A press release about the new policy included the following statement:

Advertisers commonly alter photographs to enhance the appearance of models’ bodies, and such alterations can contribute to unrealistic expectations of appropriate body image – especially among impressionable children and adolescents. A large body of literature links exposure to media-propagated images of unrealistic body image to eating disorders and other child and adolescent health problems. The AMA adopted new policy to encourage advertising associations to work with public and private sector organizations concerned with child and adolescent health to develop guidelines for advertisements, especially those appearing in teen-oriented publications, that would discourage the altering of photographs in a manner that could promote unrealistic expectations of appropriate body image.

Its important to note that eating disorders are biological illnesses with a myriad of  genetic, hormonal and neurobiological factors.  Just as parents do not cause eating disorders, nor do airbrushed magazine ads. (In fact, Carrie Arnold over at Psychology Today’s Body of Evidence does a great job of examining this aspect of the AMA’s statement).  But our hope is that this new policy is not just focused on removing a risk factor for those who may be genetically more susceptible to the “thin ideal”.  A society saturated with computer-generated images portrayed as real bodies is unhealthy and harmful whether it contributes to an eating disorder or not.   Its harmful to females and males.  Its harmful to kids and adults.  Its harmful for anyone that struggles with negative self-esteem or body image.  In this way, the issue of photoshop and media ethics is more than an eating disorder prevention issue but one that addresses self-esteem and body image on a societal level.

While some will say the policy doesn’t accomplish enough, its encouraging to see a well-respected, national organization like the AMA acknowledging the issue and prompting further attention to it. What’s most encouraging isGirl Scouts of America logo that this recent action by the AMA, seems to be part of a larger momentum of change including the Girl Scouts’ announcement of its’ project, Healthy MEdia: Commission for Positive Images of Women and Girls which is being co-launched by the National Association of Broadcasters (NAB), the National Cable & Telecommunications Association (NCTA), and The Creative Coalition.

The new policy also arrives amidst several specific wins in the fight against harmful media practices surrounding weight, food, beauty ideals and sexualization.  Most recently, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) won a settlement against Beiersdorf, Inc. (parent company of Nivea) Inc. that prohibits them from making continued false claims that its Nivea My Silhouette! skin cream can reduce consumers’ body size.  In June, the National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA) publicly applauded Yoplait for agreeing to pull a troubling ad campaign after being warned by NEDA that it normalized dangerously disordered thoughts around food and weight.  And thanks to international body image advocates Sharon HaywoodMelinda Tankard Reist and more than 5,000 signatures on a petition at Change.org, major networks MTV and VH1 both agreed to ban a violent and misogynistic music video starring Kanye West and other high profile music stars.

Lots of individuals and organizations are pushing back against the tide of false bodies, diet myths, weight prejudice and general negativity in the media.  They’re making great strides in the promotion of positive body image, self-esteem and overall health (vs. weight).  In addition to those we mentioned above, here are just a few more organizations and individuals that are doing good and speaking out for change:

When it comes to body image and media literacy, what other successful campaigns and positive social changes have you noticed lately? 

Join the discussion and check us out on Facebook & Twitter.