The Illusionists Film Screening and Discussion with Filmmaker Elena Rossini

By Hanna Pfeiffer

February 22, 2016

Elena Rossini is an Italian filmmaker and social entrepreneur who visited International House on February 22  for a screening and discussion of her film, The Illusionists. This award-winning film, a documentary about body image in the media, is unique in its breadth; it discusses ideals for both male and female bodies in several different regions of the globe.


Global Voices: Was there one particular event that led you to make this film?


Elena Rossini: Yes! I was at a point in my career where I was trying to decide what to do next and was attracted to the world of advertising. In the filmmaking community, it is very hard to earn a living just by making movies, especially independent movies. I was thinking to myself, "maybe I should consider the world of advertising." I had this eureka moment where I thought the whole premise of advertising is telling people that they are not okay as they are, but that they need to buy products to be happy and successful. It hit me like a brick. There is so much wrong with it—you are essentially selling insecurity. Around the same time, I was at my parents’ and went through my old textbooks. I found an essay called Beauty is the Beast: Psychological Effects of the Pursuit of the Perfect Female Body. It was the most eloquent article that I had ever read. It encapsulated, in 6 or 7 pages, everything I was feeling about what was wrong with the culture and the expectations for women. It laid out what women should look like, how women should behave. It blew my mind, and that day, I thought I should make a documentary about this. 


Global Voices: What led you to integrate male bodies into the film? 


Rossini: Initially, for the first one or two years of writing, I thought I was going to make a documentary exclusively about women and girls. The more I talked to men, friends and acquaintances, the more I realized there was a silent epidemic of body dissatisfaction and insecurity, even for men. It was taboo for them to talk about it because the expectations were to be strong and powerful. Admitting that you are insecure is not considered masculine in our culture. A lot of men did not like to talk about body image issues even though they really suffered. With my longtime partner, I would notice he would have his own issues. I was observing this person that I live with, but not talking about it. I realized it is incredibly important to be as inclusive as you can be. If we want to change the situation for women, we need to get men on board as well. I am often asked why I have a male narrator in the film. One reason is that I thought if I made a movie about body image and 90% of the experts were women, and it had a female narrator, viewers may have labeled it trivial. The male narrator offered a counterbalance and made men feel the concern by hearing the male voice. It worked against the dangerous impression that the movie was just about women. I almost want men to watch even more than women because men are affected in different ways. They are the new targets of the beauty industry, and they have issues talking about it openly. The second reason is because men are bombarded with the ideal of female beauty, which skews their expectations of what a woman should look like. It's a double agenda for men.


Global Voices: Women talking about damaging advertising campaigns and the rampant photoshopping of women's bodies can raise awareness for these issues and be very beneficial. However, social media also provides a platform for negative advertising images to spread. Do you think social media is beneficial or harmful? How should we react to social media today?


Rossini: I did not include social media in The Illusionists because I wanted to critique media and advertising from the top down and not make judgements about people’s actions and choices. If I do a sequel to The Illusionists, I would include social media. I find it problematic that social media platforms can encourage a narcissistic tendency. People do not post photos or status updates just to inform their friends but also look for validation through likes and comments. I find that to be damaging because if people post something and it does well, they are motivated to post that same kind of content. It is not representative of their real life, and it completely skews behavior, in my opinion. It is important when you think about media literacy to take a good look at social media and to educate people on both good and toxic uses. 


Global Voices: In this film, you focused on big business and mass media. One thing that caught my attention is that there is one large company, Unilever, which owns conflicting brands like Dove soap which has campaigns about real, natural beauty. It owns Fair & Lovely skin cream, but it also owns Ben & Jerry's Ice Cream and SlimFast which is for weight loss. When researching for this film what other commercial conflicts of interest did you uncover?


Rossini: There are so many. It is almost easier to answer the opposite question, "Which brands are good?" Honestly, I found if I did research, any given brand would surprise me by the realization of the parent company. For example, the Body Shop has an incredible reputation, especially in Europe. They want to be green, have good ingredients, and have a body positive message and yet they are owned by L’Oréal. That feels a little contradictory. I was approached by people when I was looking for funding for the film. They would say, "you should ask Dove or the Body Shop," and I could only say "no." If you look at who owns them, it is a big company that I fundamentally disagree with. There are tons of examples like that. 


Global Voices: That struck me that the company would advertise for people to eat more and lose weight at the same time.

Rossini: I love that they bought those two brands on the same day: Ben & Jerry's and Slimfast. It is so unbelievably incredible.


Global Voices: Recently there has been a move to include more plus-size models in fashion shows and advertisements. This may seem to be a positive change, but some say that plus-size models are just curvier models of the idealized white female form that we see today. How do you respond to this notion?


Rossini: Very often fashion brands or magazines go with extremes. They select incredibly thin models or plus size ones. I find that "regular" women are virtually invisible in the media. We often just see the extremes. Even for plus-size, there are models like Ashley Graham, who is a very positive model. The problem is if you look at her pictures, they are always retouched to perfection. You do not see any cellulite. I've noticed photos of her from a photo shoot and the final image, and they could not be more different. The cover of Vogue for March 2017 shows Graham on the cover with 6 other models. She is the only plus size one, and the way her body is positioned hides her shape and makes her smaller. I applaud any effort to bring diversity to fashion. A plus-size model is always retouched or they may have women of the same age group. One of the biggest issues is the invisibility of older women. Especially in the US, the people that we see the most, they are usually teenage women or in their twenties. After a certain age, they almost disappear and do not have roles. Not to be too controversial, but what happened in the US Presidential election was a disconnect for people. We never see older women doing anything. To imagine an older women in the most powerful position in the world was a disconnect. It did not seem possible. When you think about diversity, think about body size, age, race, and ethnicity. Even with companies that have older women, the ads are in black and white. Everyone looks good in black and white! Give me famous actresses who are older, do not wear makeup, are unretouched, and are in color! I would say, “this is amazing.”


Global Voices: There is a lot of retouching in almost every picture. What is the most effective way to spread awareness of retouching and put a stop to it?


Rossini: I do not think there will be a stop to retouching. It is a trend, and though it has changed through the years, even the early days of photography used filters and gels to hide imperfections. The extent of retouching today changes people's bodies. A thin model is made to look even thinner. I do not see the trend reversing, but what I find powerful is any kind of initiative by non-profits or individuals to do social media campaigns where women are taking their own photos and posting them online. These photos are not retouched. This can have a very powerful effect. Brands are not going that way because there is a real market in insecurity. Showing the idealized image pushes you to want it.


Global Voices: Is there a way to spread awareness to women that they do not need to look like that? How would we do that? 


Rossini: It is a great question. I wish I had the answer. Something I have alway stressed is having an awareness of retouched images, but what I find to be the most helpful for a positive body image is to take a media diet. I do not watch TV. I do not buy magazines. I subscribe to The New Yorker which only has illustrations. Thus, I have a healthy body image. When I had to watch TV or buy magazines for research for The Illusionists, I would feel sick to my stomach as if I had gone to McDonald's and eaten a lot of junk food. To be healthy, it is important for people to limit media consumption. Researchers have said that women have a healthier body image when they go to a spa. When they undress in front of other women, they see the diversity of other bodies. Some of the countries that have the best body image, Iceland, Sweden or Norway, are where women do that routinely.


Global Voices: I have noticed that when going to the locker room in the gym. It is reassuring to know people are living their lives just fine without perfect bodies. 


Rossini: Exactly!


Global Voices: Now that you've made this film and you have been touring, what is next for you?


Rossini: I want to keep working on projects that are about women's and girls’ empowerment. One project I will do is a short film about Muslim women in France as there is a lot of Islamophobia in France. I am very mindful of cultural appropriation; I plan to have a female Muslim co-director and an all-Muslim film crew.


Elena Rossini's visit to International House and the screening of her film were co-sponsored by the Global Voices Performing Arts and Lecture Program, the Body Project, Student Health & Counseling Services, Health Promotion & Wellness, Resources for Sexual Violence Prevention, and Peer Health Advocates.