What was considered beautiful in the 18th century is no longer beautiful today, what the Western society considers beautiful is not necessarily beautiful on the other side of the world. The spasmodic chase after pre-imposed aesthetic models forces us to torment our body, to pollute it with excesses or deprivations, to alter it, plasticize it, open it and sew it up. It is the female body in particular that has always been victimized by a vacuous marketing mechanism, which has pushed women to want to be beautiful for men’s eyes, for that society’s beauty standards, for the competition with other women, more than for themselves. And even the Mauritanian woman is not estranged from all of this.
In Mauritania the system of arranged marriage persists, a system that obligates the women of the family to start gaining an excessive amount of weight from adolescence. It’s a ritual, a daily and nightly routine, with which the elder matriarchs of the family help the daughters gorge on food with the goal of looking more beautiful, sensual, and desirable to the men who will periodically visit the household to choose their future wives. Prosperity is an indication of wealth in a poor region like Mauritania, where it is generally difficult to find and provide food. The overabundant forms of the Mauritanian woman are the business card to enter the elite society, it’s the security of a better life, something to ostentatiously display with pride. On the other hand, being thin is a disgrace, a form of shame. An ancient Mauritanian saying states, “The more space a woman occupies on the carpet, the greater the space she occupies in the heart of her lover”.
Michela Occhipinti takes the viewer by the hand into this world that seems so removed from us, from our common sense and criteria, but she also leaves us wondering if we are not, in truth, just very much alike. Verida, the protagonist, like any other good Mauritanian girl, is obsequious and respectful of the rules that have been handed down for generations. Her destiny has always been clear to her, the gavage, this old-fashioned tradition, is a part of her contemporary times, the same times we are living in. These are girls of today, with the iPhones in their hands, hanging out with friends, having their first crushes and being passionate about fashion, luxury brands and make-up. But they know they will be awakened in the middle of the night to swallow food; they know they must prepare for what will one day be the dominance of a man whom they don’t have the possibility to choose, but who will ensure them a dignified life.
The director masterfully takes us under Verida’s skin, inside her home, in her affections, in her dreams, in her deep heart. In her room we see a plastic neon heart that perhaps is a representation of her own heart, of her love dream that is however, incompatible with her own reality. Her expectations are different from the ones of a Western girl, as is different her own perception of her body and of beauty; but again, who decides what’s beautiful?
In the end it is still the patriarchal system that has imposed another unnatural model of beauty on the woman’s body. And it is here that Michela Occhipinti’s reflection becomes absolutely universal. Like standing in front of a distorting mirror, Verida’s obsession for wanting to be fat is not dissimilar from the obsession of having a super skinny body to be displayed in a tiny bikini, lying on a beach like the latest glamourous Instagram influencer. These are different influences that are, alarmingly, very impactful on young girls’ lives.
The director respectfully tiptoes into Verida’s world, caressing it without imposing an external comment, a judgment or an intrusive dramatic architecture. The camera is always placed on the women’s point of view, this is their story, this is what happens in the secrecy of their world before they opened it up to the men.
We met Michela Occhipinti on the occasion of her participation at the Tribeca Film Festival 2019, where, with “Flesh Out”, she has the honor and the prestige to represent our country as the only Italian film in competition.
Can you tell us about the origin of this film? What inspired you to tell this story?
I bumped into this story accidentally, but it soon became very personal, which can sound like a paradox because of the subject matter that seems very removed from my world. The project was born many years ago, in 2011. At that time, as I saw the first wrinkles appear on my face, I was struck by the thought that I was getting old, and I had never thought or cared about it that much. But that really bothered me, so I started asking myself why was it disturbing me so much, why do we women feel so restless when we perceive that our body is changing and our beauty is fading away? Women can do the most monstrous things to their bodies trying to stop their aging process, from the obsession of wearing make-up to cosmetic surgery. I felt an urgency to talk about this obsession. When I first came across an article about gavage, I was stunned. I first thought that they were completely nuts in Mauritania. But then I immediately realized… “no wait a minute, we are actually the same, but in a mirror”.
So, what is universal about this story?
In the end, if the fact that you want to change your body is the great universal theme, then the shape or look that you want to achieve is relative. The fact that something or someone imposes a psychological pressure that forces you to want to change your body is the main theme. I asked myself, who makes these rules? Thinking about my Western world, we are all aware that the standards of female beauty have changed through the centuries, and what was considered sexy back in the old days is no longer so today. In the 1800s, for example, curvy was considered beautiful, even in the paintings of that time they loved to show women’s cellulite because it was considered sensual. Then we switched to the model of anorexic thinness, size zero. Behind all this there is the man’s taste but also a market, there’s the cosmetic industry, the plastic surgeons; it is a complex system. I wanted to reflect on this from the point of view of another extreme paradox.
So, do you think this form of psychological pressure dictated by the patriarchal society towards the woman’s body is still very present?
It absolutely is. And I understood it even more during the long production of this film, which lasted seven years. The lack of freedom that women have in choosing who they want to be, and what they want to look like, is the same both in the Western and in the Eastern world. But in a country like Mauritania for example, this imposition is more honest, more linear, there are no subliminal messages behind it. Gavage is part of their society, for them it is normal, and girls who are born into that environment know it, they are aware that it is something they will have to live with. This does not make it less unfair to them or less violent, but at least, it is honest.
In the West–and by the West I mean not only Europe and America but also Asia–I mean a part of the world that we consider rich, this mechanism is more subtle, subliminal, and it often filters through and is amplified by the media system. No one in our families tells little girls what compromises they will have to accept in order be liked and to feel desirable. Or maybe a mother does tell a daughter, but it’s her own choice, it is not a rule, nor is it religious or legal. But everything around you tells you: newspapers, social media, models, photoshopped images, and so on.
The body is the instrument with which you manifest yourself to the world, the body is supposed to be our temple, but we live in a historical moment where it is increasingly difficult to take care of it in the right way. For example, I love technology, but I think we use it very badly. We let technology control us instead of using it as a tool. People’s profiles on Facebook or on Instagram can be alarming, they seem mostly fictitious. I think of thirteen, fourteen, fifteen year-old girls at the height of their hormonal awakening, in the moment of transition from girl to woman, who already have a hard time understanding what is changing in their bodies, and who also find themselves in this fake world of images that delivers the wrong messages, that confuses them even more.
Speaking of the world of social media, it is interesting in the film to witness this contrast between modernity and tradition. The girls of Mauritania who undergo the gavage are all with the iPhone in their hands. How do these two realities coexist together?
We have to think that Mauritania’s culture is a very strong one. The girls I met are very localized, they don’t go out of their circle. Yes, they do go on social media, but they are very tied to tradition, they always wear their veils, they practice the gavage… but they are very modern in the sense that they are free to go out, hang out with friends at the bar, find a job. They are more obsessed with luxury brands, designers’ bags, with expensive make-up. They all want their skins to look whiter, and they use tons of baby cream to make their faces look more Western. However, the magazines that are available to them are just the local ones, that portray their own world.
In addition to the pressures of the patriarchal society, do you think that women have a role and bear a responsibility in choosing that kind of destiny for their daughters?
That of Mauritania is a very complex and stratified society. There is the regime of patriarchy out in the society and that of matriarchy inside the homes. Mauritania is a country where a great part of everyday life is spent in enclosed spaces, in the house. This is in part because of their religion, their culture, but most of all it is a necessity – to stay out of the insufferable heat. Matriarchy is in the home. It is the women who take care of fattening their daughters. All that they do, they do for the men, but they run the house, they are rulers of the house. That’s why I choose to focus the camera always on the women’s point of view, because it is their story, and I wanted the men to be marginalized in the big picture of the movie.
The mother in the movie seems to effectively symbolize this matriarchal system…
I am particularly fascinated by the role of the mother, because a mother is the one who is entitled by nature to feed the baby and to protect him. But in this story the maternal instinct is carried to the extreme, it becomes something unnatural, it becomes a form of torture. Only if the daughter is fat will people think that she comes from a wealthy family, that she will be able to afford a dowry and make her debut in high society. The mother also wants to give away her daughter to the future husband so that he will take care of her and she will no longer weigh financially on the family budget. But the mother in the movie is just a regular woman. She’s not an evil woman, she does these things because that’s all she knows, these are the rules of her world, all the women in her family have done it.
Tell us about the conflict of Verida’s character. She kind of rebels, but her rebellion is very subtle.
While writing this film, some of my collaborators advised me to insert more narrative elements, more dramatic conflicts. But I didn’t want to tell this story from a Western point of view. In a culture like that of Mauritania, a girl does not rebel against the family. For a girl to raise her voice against her mother, as Verida does, once in her life, is a great gesture of rebellion, and a mother who slaps her daughter is an enormous gesture. While we are used to shouting and attacking people when we are angry, they are much more civilized than us in this sense. I wanted Verida’s biggest rebellion to come from food though, because food is a very powerful thing, it’s something that should make you feel good. Here it becomes the exact opposite. I put myself in the shoes of someone who is forced to eat that much, that is woken up at all hours to eat.
The gesture that Verida makes of loosening a bit the veil from the neck that’s getting bigger and swelling, is an important gesture of rebellion for her. I didn’t want to force this rebellion into something more dramatically powerful but less honest. I like my films to look like life.
What will be the future of “Flesh Out” and how important is it to present it today at the Tribeca 2019?
When I come back to Italy, I will attend the Bif&st Festival down in Puglia and then the film will be released in Italian theaters and I will be presenting it in a small tour. This American interlude for me is very Rock & Roll, a crazy, unexpected thing! And I hope that it will bring good luck and prestige to the future of my film.