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.
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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 have 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!
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…
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