a question of (correct?) representation

First of all, I must confess I am no professional. I have no letters assigned my name and anything I say is likely to have very little scientific credibility. All I state are opinions and feelings that I wish to share. This time, it's about the increase of films based upon or including eating disorders published for the entire public to endure. I'm going to place a trigger warning here, for anyone who has been affected by an ED; I will not include figures/images, but I must cover my own back. Let's lay it down, I'm a film geek loud and proud. Having just finished my Film Studies A Level, I've become engrossed in films I never thought I would. I've been exposed to how they're created, and just how hard it is. Therefore when I compare the following two films, I will never underestimate the work put behind them, the hours of planning and producing; an art form I'll treasure forever. But I do wish to critically analyse them, and they gave me the perfect opportunity to offer my opinion on two contrasting pieces of art.

Firstly, "To The Bone" (Marti Noxon), an American film bought by Netflix, produced by AMBI/Sparkhouse/Mockingbird. Let's be controversial and firstly 'judge the book by it's cover'. An ominous title, no positive lead, only something dark and stereotypical of an eating disorder, of course it has to concern weight!!! I'll leave my sarcastic nature for later, but that's the first set up for you. Lily Collins, pictured on the poster, emaciated and grey, with those harsh words above
The second one I came across, also released recently, was "Feed"(Tommy Bertelsen), also American but featured on VOD websites such as Amazon and iTunes. Featuring Tom Felton and Troian Bellisario, it also had 'star power', to attract young impressionable audiences. However, for me, this film succeeded beyond belief.

Let's start with TTB. I stumbled across the trailer from an ITV News post on Facebook, stating, "Netflix film about anorexia criticised by campaigners". Sick to my stomach, prickles spread across my face, my neck, my arms. I remember closing my eyes to focus on my breath. I was immediately sucked into my thoughts, "Why would they do this?", "They know how many thousands of people this could affect negatively", "I'm so angry", "How dare they". I slumped downstairs, sat down next to my mum and rested my head on her shoulder, and sighed. I ranted for a while, until she physically placed her finger on my lips, and said one line and one line only. "You haven't watched it yet." This post is not about me and nor do I intend to make it about myself. Depending on how close I am to the person reading this will define what they know, but just hear me when I say I can compare my experiences to those in the trailer to a significant degree, and for now thats all I have to say.

What the trailer shows:

-Calorie counting within the first five seconds. 
-Then you notice the emaciated female.
-Strenuous exercise.
-A giant burger shaped cake??? From her mother?? Stating ‘Eat Up Ellen” ??? 
-An ‘indie’ feel that I find hard to describe, with statements projected in an aesthetically pleasing typeface
-Body checking
-An inpatient unit that looks like a Canadian wooden shack
-Oh, and don’t forget the all important love interest

Okay, I understand I'm being pessimistic. I'm a black or white person, I find it extremely hard to understand that things don't fit perfectly into boxes sometimes, that something doesn't have to be wholly good or wholly bad. But give me some time, I'll commend it later. 

I went to my therapist, I cried, I was stuck in a rut. I was too scared to watch it, yet everyday I logged into my laptop there it sat. She said to me, "You're afraid of watching it because you're afraid of how it will make you feel, and therefore what you will do as a consequence. But you don't know how it will make you feel, and after all they're just feelings. Watch it critically, take a birds eye view, don't get 'involved'." I knew the way to get through it was to use my analytical skills that I'd learnt over the past few years, with a little insight into my own experiences to be able to judge whether its content was positive or not. 

I'll try and keep this as to the point as possible, and not to give everything away if you desire to watch the film, but with a flood of many thoughts it might be tricky. The film begins with a disclaimer, stating that it should be viewed at the viewers discretion due to its harsh content. However as a few people reading this may know, in the mental state of a person intoxicated with this illness, theres something highly appealing about the danger that the addiction brings, and that by not watching it you aren't being the 'best', 'most perfect' anorexic you could be (or another eating disorder for that matter). So, like I did, you'd most likely continue, even with the warning, to then endeavour into the first twenty minutes of the film, including immediate jokes such as "suck my skinny balls", with an upbeat soundtrack as she completes her sit ups. The film is even classified as a comedy on IMDB, something which really sums it up as a whole. Don't get me wrong, theres a place for keeping life light hearted no matter how sombre the subject, but to begin in this fashion sets the film up to fail. 

From the beginning of the film, Lily Collins, acting as the character of Ellen, is seen to be extremely thin, an obvious consequence of anorexia nervosa. Her sister is seen to be counting calories with her when she visibly has an extremely low BMI. She is not sectioned, she is not taken to a hospital, she is not forced into recovery. Something I must make clear, this film is set in America, and I cannot ever say I have a single clue of how the system works there. The only point I'd like to make is that the film was published on Netflix UK, and for those who have an eating disorder, which is approximately 725,000 people in the United Kingdom, just over 1% of the population, will understand that such situations are rare. Lily is given the choice to recover, we presume the institution she enters into is a private one, but in England, intervention from the NHS would be required (but of course such services don't exist in the US). Although this may just be a difference of countries, its weighting is heavy as it paints a drastically different view, as Ellen's routine of care with the same circumstances in the UK would have been substantially different. This leads the other 99% of people watching the film, to believe our system may work the same, and that eating disorders are more of a 'choice', a thought I would quickly push to the back of my mind as it mak

es me feel nauseous.

Early on in the film the focus becomes immediately upon her body, her weight, her calories. Anorexia Nervosa is one eating disorder out of many, however even within the singular diagnosis, the depth is significant, and every patient is different. Although scientifically yes, the low weight is part of the diagnosis of anorexia, making the film focus upon this angers me. There are thousands of people that have difficult relationships with food, or even other eating disorders which are just ignored due to the fact they don't resemble a bag of bones. The focus should be upon the brain, the inner turmoil that is a cause and an effect of the disorder, what's targeted in recovery and why the disorder has originated in the first place. Placing the focus of the film upon the weight is like focusing upon the hair loss in a film about cancer, a consequence, the aftermath. 

Lily Collins has spoken out about her struggles with anorexia, and how when she was cast for the film she worked with professionals to help her lose the weight and gain it again. My friend described this as almost oxymoronic. If the aim of the film was to get the message out about EDs, and their danger, then it seems counter productive to allow Lily to return to such a state in order to play the role. To suffer from an eating disorder and to become obsessive with the fat upon your body or what you place in your mouth, is not something that is healthy to ever return to, and for the purpose of a film? I believe that no matter how long it's been, to put yourself in such a position, no matter how you lose the weight or wish to regain it, is extremely toxic, and I don't quite understand how these 'professionals' decided this was a good idea. In this day and age, CGI and special effects are so intricate that such weight did not need to be lost, I echo what I have already said, the focus should have never been on the weight, we didn't even need to see her naked skin for the film to have a powerful effect. 

The details. There were some things very accurate to some individuals, such as body checking, or the dysfunctional family, or the water intake before weigh in, which I think was somewhat wise to include for those who haven't come into contact with the illness. It showed some of the nitty gritty which I can, in a weird way, say I enjoyed. But like I said, once positively built they proceeded to discount this merit, as it became graphic in the spitting out food scenes, the mention of weight figures/calories, a competition of how many times they'd been in an inpatient unit or talks about periods/babies. They took it too far, explicit scenes made me feel more than uncomfortable, as I'm sure many others did.

I can imagine many people reading this would suggest something along the lines of, "Hol, come on, if something is produced like this and makes you feel this way, then why on earth did you pursue to watch it?". And simply, my reason is this. 3% of people in America suffer from an eating disorder, alongside just over the 1% in the UK I previously mentioned, along with however many millions of others in other countries that have access to this film. Before it was released, something I'll call 'the eating disorder social media community', went crazy. Pro-anorexia accounts were taking images from it as something to aspire to, a cult to follow, a positive destruction to the mind and body. People like myself spend days on end, striving to paint pictures of mental illnesses to those that are unaware of them. Immediately, this film reverses our hard work, undoes the rope we've so carefully tried to connect between each and every person we come into contact with that the brain should be treated as any other organ. Frankly, that's why I can share my misery, because I am not alone. YOU are not alone. I'm ready to fight that.

So, "Feed". After this rather traumatic experience with TTB, I was apprehensive. I didn't want another experience like it and quite frankly, I was pissed off. I envisaged twelve year old girls thinking this de-habilitating illness was funny or cool or anything apart from what it was. I won't neglect the fact that many could say they're raising awareness, even with the faults I've expressed, at least SOMEONE is talking about it. However, I can't help but think it was an unnecessary film, any positives displayed were quite soon removed by its glorification. But nonetheless, I wanted to compare them, it was what I'd set out to do, and boy am I glad I continued. 

Like Lily Collins, Troian also actively speaks to young people about her eating disorder experiences, and in interviews has said she was very active in the production process. I've seen much of her work before, and she has a clear identity and style of film, which I love. This may make my views of the films bias before even starting but her use of composition, cinematography, sound, mise-en-scene, are works of art. The focus was upon her nature to strive for perfection in every essence of life, about her nature as a person. Her twin was senior president, the family was high achieving. It acknowledges normal life, her living at home and her parents, her school, and avoids painting a 'hipster' picture of anorexia. Life for her is a competition, which I very strongly related to. In a meeting with her headmaster she says, "Do I not have the highest grades anymore?", as a pang hit my chest as images soar through my mind of scenarios of crying in teachers offices just because I didn't reach that A* in an end of topic test, or even worse, just because I didn't get 100%.

I'm able to speak more concisely about this film, probably slightly because I want you all to go and watch it, but also because it fits nicely into boxes. Her brother dies, and becomes her anorexic controlling voice, in an hallucinogenic form. The film delves into the world of other mental illnesses, and moves away from just neurotics and enters into the psychoses, something which interested me to no end. To present the anorexic voice in a human body gave it gravitas. I've always felt that it feels like another person on your shoulder, so the decision to show it in physical form I adored.

Although underweight, the focus of the film was never on her weight, it was upon her loss of mental control. We saw her brain falling apart as opposed to the rest of her body, something far more interesting to see on screen. The scenes of her as a dancer hit home, as scenes in the changing room allowed me to feel the blood running up to my head and draining down into my fingers. Uncomfortable, yet with a difference this time, a slight soothing. Even the comparison of NG tube scenes were brief, they did not linger and outstay their welcome, they gave you the sharp stab of pain but soon they were gone and you were plunged into a new location.

The falling sequence is now a new favourite of mine in film history. Her descent into the abyss of failure, with the accompanying music, layered composition as the non-diegetic words "It's about control" are repetitively heard, artistically demonstrate the feelings. The most important things of an eating disorder are not visible, and these are what need to be shown. We can all see if a girl in class has a low BMI. But we can't see the girl that had fourteen chocolate bars last night until she was sick because her teacher told her to buck her ideas up.

Challenge me, let me know your thoughts. Tell me what you think or feel. I want a debate, a wide one for everyone to share. What's acceptable to share, what's healthy and what could cause damage? Let's get people talking, come out of the dark, it's time. 

Hol x


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    1. (This comment was deleted because I think they thought a different person had written it! I'm Holly Chandler, and all work is my own x)


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