“…An Attempt to see Anorexia From a Perspective That Goes Beyond That of the Spectacle”: Moara Passoni on Her CPH:DOX Debut Ecstasy
Premiering in the DOX:AWARD main competition at this year’s (now digital) CPH:DOX, Ecstasy (Êxtase) is the astonishing debut of Brazilian filmmaker Moara Passoni, a longtime collaborator of The Edge of Democracy Oscar nominee Petra Costa (who serves as the doc’s producer). It’s a mix of fiction and nonfiction, of historical images and staged scenes, of autobiographical diary entries obsessively developing a “geometry of hunger” even as political chaos grips ’90s Brazil (and it’s all tied together by a stunning soundtrack, including music by David Lynch and Lykke Li). It’s also a startlingly unusual coming-of-age story, one in which the director herself plays a vital role through the luminescent character of Clara, who, like Passoni, experiences the agony and the “ecstasy” of anorexia from childhood until the age of 18.
Filmmaker was fortunate to catch up with the currently NYC-based Passoni soon after CPH:DOX made the film available online (to local Danish audiences, that is).
Filmmaker: I read that you AD’d for experimental filmmaker Kiko Goiffman, and this film seamlessly mixes documentary and fiction, which makes me curious about how you developed your particular aesthetic. Was it always evident that the voiceover would be nonfiction and the images mostly staged?
Passoni: When I started this project I only knew three things. I needed to make a film in order to communicate what I had lived through during all those years, making sense of it and transforming it into a story. I needed to avoid the spectacle our society produces around the anorexic body because this stops real dialogue and blocks the experience. And I wanted to create a film in which the audience could touch the psyche of a young woman struggling to grow up. A kind of coming-of-age story in which the available model for aging doesn’t fit the character — so she has to invent her own.
For years, my guiding idea was to make a film only with voiceover and empty spaces, mirroring the process of becoming anorexic. Even if everything was about the body, the body was the big, absent problematic center of the narrative. I thought, if I don’t bring the body to the screen then people will imagine it. This can be more powerful than showing the body.
The voiceover first came as a way of opening the image to other senses. I’m a fan of Robert Bresson. I don’t use the voice the same way he did, but he taught me a lot about voiceover — and sound — in cinema. And, most importantly, opened up possibilities, gave me freedom to create.
However, at some point I started questioning myself. How can I make a film about anorexia without the body? Because, in the end, it is all about it. And the disruptive power of this experience also lay in its concreteness.
But still, I didn’t want to show the anorexic body. I investigated the possibility of filming myself, as I am nowadays. But that also didn’t feel right, or felt like it would be another film, about overcoming anorexia. Something was still missing.
With Fernando Epstein, my editor who became a writer on the film, we opened the cut with empty spaces and voiceover on the timeline and started experimenting. As we created new sequences and completely rewrote the screenplay, we discovered a principle that we would follow until the end of the editing process. When the sequence was abstract, the voiceover had to be concrete. When the sequence was concrete, the voiceover had to be abstract. The film pulses in between these two extremes.
Mixing fiction and documentary enabled me to put the reality of the anorexic body against the often delirious abstraction of anorexia. Êxtase is a cinematic immersion in the story of a girl intensely struggling with her condition in the world. As we enter the world of Clara, the film pulses more and more in between her concrete reality and her delirious passion. Her madness, and an absent pain that nevertheless haunts her.
And when we finally found the core narrative of the film — a girl in different ages struggling to grow up — we finally understood that showing the body was almost necessary in order to give the audience the possibility of understanding what was really at stake in her history. Because now we could see her entering and leaving this process, and could understand what is in her story. We could humanize the character.
Filmmaker: Though you’re a first-time doc feature director, you co-wrote and associate produced Petra Costa’s Oscar-nominated The Edge of Democracy, and also served as an associate producer on her two prior films, Olmo & the Seagull and Elena. Now Costa, in turn, serves as your producer. So what’s that relationship like? How long have you worked together? Did you collaborate on your films simultaneously?
Passoni: Petra and I first met when we studied dance, theater and performance at PUC-São Paulo. I think that our friendship and creative partnership came from these affinities that are created by the experiences we go through, by our formation. We both grew up with politics permeating family relationships — in quite different places and circumstances, no doubt. But when you grow up with politics so close to you, it’s very difficult for it to not leave marks or seduce you. Maybe the crossing of politics, intimacy and art is what first brought us together.
We have collaborated since Petra’s first feature-length film Elena (2012). The partnership grew over the years until she began to embrace the film. We worked simultaneously on Ecstasy and The Edge of Democracy.
We learned and discovered a lot about cinema together. I learned a lot from her, of course. She is masterful at conveying emotions in films, an unstoppable artist with a fascinating inner world. She taught me to fight for my vision till the very last moment, to be precise about what I want to build. How to get the best out of my collaborators. She always put together a team of smart and creative people. It is quite awakening to be in an environment like this.
For me, a productive creative partnership inspires, displaces, disturbs, provokes and enhances your voice. That’s how I see my partnership with Petra.
Filmmaker: Your portrayal of anorexia is unlike anything I’ve seen onscreen before, and spot-on. I too suffered from the disease in my teen years, and the line you use, “The hysteric’s body is revolutionary” is much closer to my experience of it. The stereotypical notion that anorexia is always about conforming to society’s ideals of womanhood, when it’s often the exact opposite, a rebellion against societal structures (see “self-starvers” such as the philosopher Simone Weil and Provisional Irish Republican Army volunteer Dolours Price), is maddening. Maybe you could expand on this a bit? It certainly seems a driving force of the film.
Passoni: Simone Weil is one of the main references for me and for this film. Maybe you can even find her thoughts living, here and there, in the film.
Anorexia is, for me, a refusal. A refusal of the standards and patterns that are imposed upon the body, that domesticate the body. It’s a liberation from the prevailing molds that make us adults, and turn us into women or men. If the body is the primary dwelling of one’s being, then one must completely negate that body, and the public dimension that impregnates it: femininity, standards of beauty, health, desire, life itself. It’s as if, back then, I was saying to the world that models of “maturity” and “womanhood” just didn’t interest me.
And even though entirely based on control, it was a radical refusal of the forms of control the institutions have over our bodies. In a sense, I was trying to invent a voice of my own. It reminds me of a passage in which Marguerite Duras quotes the historian Michelet, “It was in the forest that we, women, spoke for the first time; that we issued our free speech, an invented speech; which woman said first to the animals, to the plants, it belongs to her alone, and it was not learned. And it was because her speech was free that she was punished for it. It was because of this speech that she gave up her duties to man and to the hearth and home. It’s the voice of liberty, so naturally it causes fear.”
Filmmaker: You engaged with therapists and patients to develop the doc, and one anorexic woman not only helped with the script but allowed you to film her. Didn’t you worry that “celebrating” her body onscreen could do more harm than good, though? Anorexia is a silent scream for attention, after all.
Passoni: Ecstasy was born from the questions engendered in my own personal experience. In this sense, it is part of a drive to build an autobiographical discourse cobbled out of memories, and diaries in which I described my own experience of anorexia as a teenager. It was based on my understanding of something so indelible in my own history that I decided to make this film.
From the beginning, the core of this film was an attempt to see anorexia from a perspective that goes beyond that of the spectacle, to which stock notions consign it all too readily and quickly. For me, it was essential that the film come from a prejudice-free encounter with anorexics capable of conveying the truth of their experience, and of revealing something about contemporary society that is far more central than might at first appear.
Anorexia is, therefore, a word that peels away from a process of reclusion and emaciation that I experienced so intensely from the age of 11 to 18. There’s a wellspring of questions that go beyond an experience on the personal plane alone. At the root of this reality lay the problem of language. The impossibility of communicating what I was going through — and the symmetrical impossibility of seeing myself in the discourses of others (doctors, psychoanalysts, nutritionists, sociologists and even family) — translated to an extreme difficulty I had in signifying myself (to myself and to others). What was I trying so hard to express, and failing so dismally to convey, without anyone willing to listen? What was my anorexic body attempting to say?
After all, the violence of degradation I imposed on my own body was countered by angry despair, and the clear discomfort and even disgust — an aggressive distance and anguish (of incomprehension?) — on the part of those around me. The world around me read in my body and in my anorexic attitude something that was not formulated, but that undoubtedly participated in this contact. “Provoking the eye, [anorexia] disturbs it,” says the French psychoanalyst Eric Bidaud.
I couldn’t recognize what I experienced from 11 to 18 in the films about anorexia I had access to. There’s this spectacle and victimization that seems to go with anorexia, but that didn’t fit with my experience. There was a whole other dimension to it that was rarely mentioned in the films, whether by doctors, therapists, the press. What was I trying to cure with that illness? What was I “getting out of it”? I wasn’t trying to get sick. I was trying to find a cure for some underlying pain that predated anorexia.
“If you don’t eat, you’ll die,” that’s what I heard most of all. Death is present, you know the risk, but it doesn’t mean anything. It’s not a question of a death wish. It’s the opposite, in fact — life dialed up to the very maximum. In this sense, anorexia is really much more of an attempt to save yourself than to destroy yourself. The sensation of omnipotence and control anorexia gives you is comforting. The feeling that you need no one. And for a long time, the fasting really heightened my senses. My mind was faster. I felt more energy the less I ate.
Only when I understood that there was pleasure in my own emaciation, and that what I was trying to do was find a way to live — not to kill myself — did I finally manage to overcome my condition. And the language of the film is drawn from this, too, as it endeavors to plumb the psyche of the character in order to comprehend how she builds her reality. In a nutshell, the film unfolds within the tension between delirium and reality, seduction and violence, suffering and ecstasy, omnipotence and fragility, individual and community, and so on.
Anorexia is something dangerously seductive when you are in its mindset. In anorexia I lived both heaven and hell. When I emerged from it I was in purgatory, where there is neither the divine intensity nor the atrociousness of hell. “Going out [of the hospital] to live this life here? Never!” writes Valéry Valére, a classic case of a French girl who, at 16, suffered until her death from anorexia. Indeed, we do live in an oppressive world that offers very little possibilities — maybe politics, the arts — for you to “save” yourself. Anorexia was an attempt at saving myself.
Nowadays I’m thankful that my delirious project of transcendence failed. Otherwise I would probably have ended up as Narcissus, drowned by the search for the divine image of the world.
Filmmaker: The soundtrack, particularly the music by David Lynch and Lykke Li, seems truly suited to the film, enhancing the visceral imagery without intruding on it. How did this aspect of the doc come about?
Passoni: In the club scene, the competition between the two extremely different types of music that Clara listens to, in her mind, leads the narrative.
Clara is struggling to connect with the outer world and finding reasons to taste life. The song opens the third act, and is the only part of the soundtrack that contains lyrics. She is in a club, and as the camera tries to explore her mind — which it can’t, but it tries — the music is what gives somewhat of a shape to this abstraction. As we dive deeper into her mind, we listen more and more to “I’m Waiting Here.” The music not only sets up the atmosphere of the scene, it creates the narrative of the scene itself. Everything that happens there is sensorial, getting to the bottom of her paradoxical ecstasy.
I’ve been a fan of David Lynch’s films since my adolescence. Eraserhead, The Elephant Man are important references for me — actually The Elephant Man was the first film I analyzed and wrote about. I was 19, studying anthropology, sociology and political science, and researching “the build of stigma in horror movies.” I allowed a historical drama to be a horror film just so I could study it, watch and rewatch it, and write about it.
Then, Lynch “introduced” Li to me. I was amazed by her voice and lyrics and started watching Q&A’s with her online. At some point I discovered she had lived with anorexia, and her creation somehow reflects that time.
So because of these inexplicable and fabulous ways in which the universe works, I found the only possible music for the scene. When you are making a film, it tells you what works and what doesn’t, what is part of its universe and what’s not. What the film needs and what it rejects. And it needed “I’m Waiting Here” as fish need water.
Music is such a crucial element of this film. The opposition between techno music, erudite music, deconstructed erudite music, and pop music could be seen as a narrative layer in itself. Maybe because when I was under this condition my life was so mathematical and rhythmic — because of the precise control and rituals I’d establish over my routine — that it was as if I had turned myself into music.