One of the most fascinating narratives at the recent Tribeca Film Festival was Flesh Out, directed and co-scripted by Michela Occhipinti, whose documentary roots are present in every frame. An Italian production that is set in Mauritania, Africa, it is about a young girl who experiences the very real practice of gavage, the force-feeding of young women to make them heavier and more desirable for marriage. If you see it, you will never stop talking about it. Like me.
Synopsis: Verida is a modern girl. She works in a beauty salon, is addicted to social media and hangs out with her friends. Still, she is engaged to be married to a man chosen by her family, and like many girls her age, she is forced to gain a substantial amount of weight in a tradition called gavage, because in Mauritania having a voluptuous body is considered a sign of great beauty, charm, wealth, and social status. The wedding is fast approaching and meal after meal, Verida begins to challenge everything she always thought was normal, her loved ones, and not the least her own body.”
Watch the trailer:
From the Director’s Statement in the film’s press notes: “Through the reference to the unique and whimsical story of a woman who has to get fat out of proportion to satisfy an imposed aesthetic standard, even to the extent of putting her own health at risk, Flesh Out reflects on the complex relationship between women and their bodies on a much wider scale. How do social models, often built to correspond to male desires, influence and condition women all over the world? How close are Mauritanian women to the many women from other parts of the world who go on unbearable diets or succumb to extreme plastic surgery?”
During the festival I had this conversation with the passionate Michela Occhipinti about her enlightening and provocative movie.
Danny Peary: You were born in Rome, but did you live in Africa in one point?
Michela Occhipinti: My father lived in Africa and I spent my summers in Congo with him. That was the 1980s. I had a big link to Northern Africa because my father was born in Tunisia, my brother was born in Cairo, my grandmother was French and born in Algeria, and when I was a kid we had a house in Morocco. So I traveled a lot to Libya, Egypt, and those countries.
DP: In your time in Africa, did you ever hear of gavage?
MO: Never. For many years I was working for RAI 3, the Italian national TV channel 3 to produce documentaries, so I knew that area quite well, but I never heard of gavage until I read a tiny magazine article about it in 2011.
DP: Do you remember your initial reaction?
MO: Very well. I said, “Ah! They’re crazy.” And a split second later, I said, “We do the same thing.” Not making females heavier so that they are more appealing, but the reverse. The body shape a woman is trying to achieve is really secondary. It’s I’m trying to change my body. It doesn’t matter if it’s to become fatter or skinnier, or younger, or more voluptuous, the process is what’s important and the process is very similar around the world. It doesn’t matter if you have nausea or are feeling pain, for me it is the process of the mortification of your body.
DP: Why did you choose this unusual subject for your first narrative feature?
MO: After I read the article, I decided to research the topic on the Internet. I found about 25 more articles and four or five small TV reports. I think two were French, two were British, and one was American. And once Oprah Winfrey invited a girl from Mauritania to be on her show and they talked about it. There wasn’t much apart from those, and it was a topic that hadn’t been explored at all on film. Initially, I wanted to make a documentary, because that’s what I did before.
The exception was a half documentary/half-scripted fiction that I shot in India in 2009 called Letters from the Desert (eulogy to slowness) about a postman [whose job delivering mail to people in remote desert areas is threatened by the introduction of cell phones.] But when I went to Mauritania in 2012 to do research, each girl, each woman, each mother, each grandmother told me different stories, so I thought if I made a documentary and followed a single woman I could tell only her part of a bigger story. So if I did a documentary I’d have to follow a lot of girls. But it wasn’t my interest to tell the story of many girls.
DP: All the characters, events, and conversations seem so real that it could almost be mistaken for a documentary. Your characters even have the same names as the people who play them. Yet it is fiction based on fact. Did you want to control your story by making it a narrative about one girl?
MO: In a narrative, I could put all the elements I heard about from many sources into one girl’s story. And I didn’t want to spend two months following a real girl who was undergoing kind of a torture.
DP: In other countries, women are told to get thin so they have a better chance of getting a husband. But in this case, when tradition is followed, getting heavy is compulsory. It’s a little different.
MO: The difference there is that the mother is the person who gives food to the daughter. I found it interesting that a lot of this fattening up is done with milk. Milk is the first food—the first pure, primal food–that your mother gives you when you’re born. When your mother gives it to you now to fatten you up, nurture becomes torture. It’s a bit more violent, and it’s in the open; elsewhere, it’s less violent, but it’s more subtle. As soon as you’re a young girl, thirteen or fourteen, already things are in transformation, and you are bombarded with images of models that make you feel adequate.
DP: You show us in the film how modern Mauritania is. We see Toyota trucks, cellphones, headphones, magazines, a mall, beauty salons, T-shirts that read, “All I need is coffee.” Yet they are holding onto this bad tradition.
MO: That’s right.
DP: I would think that males in Mauritania would see the models in the magazines and think that attractive women are supposed be thin, not heavy.
MO: All of it is very contradictory and complex, not one way. Young males in their thirties that I met at a club said that they prefer plump women but others preferred thin women. A lot of people told me, “You’re too thin. Are you sick?” There is a clash between tradition and modern. In the city, probably only 20% of young women do gavage. In the desert, that percentage is doubled. Some people would say that they don’t do gavage anymore, but I’d see that the women in their families were full-bodied.
So even in families that don’t do gavage, women still follow tradition by being heavy. It’s a sign of wealth. But I must say that I met women from some upper-class families there who say they don’t even know what gavage is. I asked myself later if they just didn’t understand the French word and would have said perhaps, “Yes, my grandmother did it.” My experience was that in every household, at least one family member did gavage, maybe an aunt or grandmother.
DP: How did the woman who played Verida’s mother feel playing that role?
MO: She felt it was very natural. I would tell her, Verida and the others in the cast that if they didn’t feel that some of their lines were correct, they should change them. Aichetou is the real Verida’s aunt. The father is played by the real Verida’s uncle. And the younger sister is played by Verida’s real sister. It was important that they played characters with the same names, because with the exception of the actor who played the father, they were all amateurs. When Verida and Amal, who plays her best friend Amal, came to Berlin for the world premiere in February, I told them I needed to know what they thought about the film.
Amal said, “It was so us. It was so real.” Verida said, “It is 70% of what really happened to me.” I knew that when she was sixteen, she was promised to marry a man by her family. She was devastated by it and got a divorce. She married again to a Turkish man and lived in Turkey for a while. She got divorced again and came back to Mauritania with her daughter. We had a lot of meetings to talk about this. The first thing I made everyone understand in 2012 is that I wasn’t going to make a movie that criticized their society, but was about using it as a lens to look at every society.
DP: Talk about the views of Sidi—both the character and the man who played him.
MO: Sidi came to Rome when we were still editing the movie. He’s a modern boy who travels a lot. He came to Berlin as well and already came to New York. He liked the film very much but said, “I don’t like Sidi in the movie.” We are very good friends now because he was the boy who took me around in 2012, 2016, and February last year—during preparation and filming—because he was my interpreter and driver. That’s what Sidi does for a living. For my movie I wanted the boy to have the sweetness Sidi has.
DP: Was there a Sidi character in the real Verida’s story?
MO: No. Scale boys existed in the past but don’t exist anymore. Verida says she didn’t even have a precision scale in her house. But one reason I wanted to make this film was to incorporate elements from the past and present and possible future.
DP: There are very few other males in the movie. Even Verida’s father barely shows up.
MO: That was very intentional. In Mauritania, there is patriarchy in society and matriarchy in the home. Since this fattening up is the business of the women in the family, I thought it was correct to marginalize the male characters. Sidi is the only male who has a real presence. He seems very present, but in fact he appears for very few minutes. He is important because he balances how Verida looks at herself. For me, it was very important that there was no love story, just an interest in each other. It is not the boy saving the girl.
DP: Verida tells her mother, “Sidi is not the problem.”
MO: Exactly. She is intrigued that a boy likes her exactly as she is and that she doesn’t have to change to be accepted. It is through his gaze that she realizes she can look at herself in a different way.
DP: In your Director’s Statement in the film’s press notes, you say that you hope your film “arouses curiosity, that it may encourage the audience to reflect on the ways in which their own societies obstruct their freedom.” That is powerful line. Yet it reveals what you know: your film won’t change the world or make the UN send forces into Mauritania to right the wrong.
MO: Yes, but if I have to spend seven years of my life to do something, it has to be very meaningful to me. I don’t have the illusions I had in my twenties but I hope my movie at least makes people ask questions. For me, nothing is fixed. I want to die still asking myself a lot of questions and giving myself very few answers. Because everything is in constant evolution and very few things are really fixed and sure. Most things are too complex to judge or define. Maybe just one or two or three girls get out of doing gavage to become more beautiful. Maybe they will say, “You know what? I’m going to be easier on my body.” If there were just one beauty standard all over the world, I would still question it.
DP: Verida stands up to her mother for one brief moment. She does tell her that gavage is “not normal.” Would the real Verida say, “It’s not normal”?
MO: Of course. She told me that she cried a lot during her process. She was sixteen and her father was sick at the time. When she came home one day, she saw many cars parked outside and thought her relatives had come because he had died. But no, they were the future groom’s family. The aunts took her away and brought her to where they could fatten her up. It isn’t a culture where you rebel so easily.
She is an obedient girl who is used to following tradition, but it wasn’t easy for her. I find it interesting that Verida is a vegan. She’d eat many times each day what her mother fed her and even have her sleep interrupted to eat. (In the movie, I wanted the food to look unappetizing and give her nausea.) Because she lived through what happened to her body, Verida understood that it was not normal, it was not okay.
DP: Was the real Verida ever suicidal because of force feeding?
MO: No. I know a lot of people think that the ending indicates Verida commits suicide, but to me it doesn’t. Maybe I didn’t do my job well!
DP: When I saw that scene you’re talking about, I thought she did commit suicide. I thought suicide was preferential to what she knew what would happen to her. I saw it as her last rebellious moment. It’s her escape.
MO: She goes to the sea and takes off her veil, in a liberated way. Maybe it’s only for the moment. I don’t know what happens to her after this. Maybe she’ll join Amal in Cairo. Maybe she’ll get married anyway. Maybe her mother will accept that she shouldn’t continue gavage and get married. For me, at very least she is getting rid of her image. Her image is created and then vanishes. All through the film, there are reflections of her in mirrors, such as on the wardrobe in her room and in her grandmother’s beauty salon where she’s doing a manicure. Those are all objects made by man. But the last reflection on the water is in nature. The water comes in and then goes away, just as we go into the story and then move away from it. I leave it right there.
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Danny Peary has published 25 books on film and sports, including Cult Movies,Jackie Robinson in Quotes, and his newest publication with Hana Ali, Ali on Ali: Why He Said What He Said When He Said It, about the origins of her father’s most famous quotes (Workman Publishing).