Talent On Tap – Vancouver International Women’s Film Festival – Perfect 14

By now, we’re all familiar with the term ‘body shaming’ and the emotional pain that comes with it. Technology is incredible but in the wrong hands it can be used for evil. I didn’t think there were such things as trolls but social media says otherwise. From what I’ve been able to observe, the trolls main object is to find a target and wound it, bruise it, batter it and kick it until only a petrified empty shell remains. What is the reward for the troll? They have the satisfaction of knowing they took somebody’s light away. The sparkle has faded and only a clump of dust is left as a reminder that cruelty is real and it is thriving.

When you walk into a crowd, are you looking at people and picking out the perfect from imperfect? When I go through a crowd, I’m interested in the psychology of what makes us behave the way we do, what struggles have you experienced, how much affection you’ve had in your life and are you a troll disguised as an outstanding dog walker? There’s not a lot of information to extract from a person in a crowd. If they look athletic, they probably hit the gym regularly. If they look thin, they probably have a high metabolism. If they are heavy, what will that say about them? Will they be criticized more than the others? Would you avoid them if given the choice or would you approach them to ask for directions, because they have a kind face and happen to be smiling at a little baby in a stroller… and their body shape doesn’t matter to you.

Body-shaming is a horrible reality. I personally don’t care what people think about my shape but there are others that have their lives impacted by its forked tongue. If you’re tall, thin and have great bone structure, you might consider modeling. If you’re tall, have great bone structure but are a size 14, do you still consider modeling? This is the subject of the film, Perfect 14, created by writer/director Giovanna Morales Vargas and her partner and producer/editor James Earl O’Brian. They were incredibly kind and generous with taking the time to meet with me and discuss the film along with the social impacts surrounding it.

“Why did you want to make this film?”

Giovanna: “I met one of the main models in the film, Elly Mayday several years ago. We worked together in a restaurant. We both left the restaurant to pursue other things and she became a plus size model. I started following her facebook page and through her images I started following her journey as a model. I really loved her images as a plus size model and couldn’t believe we don’t see more images like this more regularly in the media. It impacted me a lot and I got really obsessed with this topic. I started searching and investigating the plus size industry. I loved everything that they stood for, so they asked me if I’d be interested in making a local documentary about plus size models in Vancouver. From there I talked to my friend James, who I went to film school with many years ago.”

“Which film school did you go to?”

James: “Langara, it was a short course for us to brush up on our knowledge. It was where we met and I was instantly drawn to Giovanna for her creativity and intensity for film. She loved it as much as I did. She was a perfect match in our endeavors and we were looking for the perfect project to do together that we could put all our energy into. She approached me with this idea a couple years later. We had been making other short films and working on other projects individually. Once she approached me with the idea, I thought it was great and wanted to get started right away. When I looked online to see if anyone else had made a film like this, it turned up empty. We could be the one to be the voice for these models and for the industry. It started off quite small, we were just going to do it locally but it snowballed from there. As we interviewed more models, bloggers, photographers and agencies, they kept referring us to other people we should talk to, bigger people in the industry. They said we needed to go to Toronto and Montreal. When we went there they said we needed to go to New York, LA, Australia and Paris. This is a world-wide issue in body confidence.”

“Do you find that those issues change from country to country?”

James: “Very subtly, there is always the same issue of ‘I’m never perfect’, there’s always an ideal to shoot for. In some countries it’s very thin and in others it’s very curvy, so with an ideal weight to shoot for there’s always an underlying problem that you’re never perfect enough. We interviewed over 200 people on four continents in ten countries. Europe, Australia, South America, North America and had over 300 hours of footage at the end of it all to sift through. We had so much good footage it was hard to cut it down. We’ve been all over the world with it winning awards but its nice to bring it home to the Vancouver premiere on Thursday, March 7th at Vancity theatre.”

“It must’ve taken a tremendous amount of time to make this film?”

Giovanna: “It was, we started in 2013. We were following the lives of the models. Elly Mayday, who was one of the subjects of the film and had began her modeling in Vancouver before reaching huge success in New York and having billboards in Time Square. The other models also had success stories. We travelled to Australia to film one of the most successful plus size models in the industry. She worked a lot in New York but moved to Australia. We travelled to LA, New York and Columbia to be able to provide as much content as possible, to be able to provide different perspectives on the industry.”

“How were you able to get access to the models?”

Giovanna: “I knew Elly from the beginning but for the other two main models we had to search. With Gloria, we had gotten to know her through all the research we did. We knew she was a huge model in Australia so we sent her a message. People have been attached to the concept from the beginning. They felt like there was finally a film that represents them.”

“It seems like people you approached were very open to discuss the plus size industry.”

James: “It made it easier in some aspects to get interviews and make contact with the plus size industry. On the other side, there’s the standard modeling industry and it was very challenging to talk to people on camera about the reasons they don’t put plus size models in their magazines. Luckily, in Australia they were very receptive. They approached it from the perspective that societies pressures make it very difficult for them to do. Advertisers won’t support it and photographers won’t support it. We’re very grateful to the Australian magazine industry for being open to us.”

Giovanna: “We wanted to be able to offer both sides of the argument but nobody was willing to go on camera to give us a reason why they weren’t using plus size models. Australia was very willing for some reason. When talking to Harpers Bazaar, they were very honest with us, they couldn’t use the plus size models in fear of losing they’re job. She has to choose photos that look perfect in the eyes of the population. It’s what we needed to hear and we finally got it on camera. We needed to show perspective from both sides.”

James: “At the end of the film we included a list of people we tried to get on camera to speak to us, but they refused or never replied back.”

Giovanna: “We were not even able to talk to the most successful plus size model in the world. Her name is Ashley Graham and initially her agent said yes to us but at that same moment, her career blew up because she became the first Plus-size model to be on the cover of Sports Illustrated. Once that happened she moved up to celebrity status and no longer wanted to talk.”

“In the film, you have a model that is diagnosed with stage 3 Ovarian cancer. I found her diagnoses heartbreaking but I found her courage and tenacity off the charts.”

Giovanna: “Yes, that’s Elly Mayday. Unfortunately, we’ve heard some bad news recently. On March 1st she passed away. It’s been incredibly heartbreaking but we are so happy that we were able to capture her story. Her family is incredibly happy with the film. They all watched it in the hospital with her. We’re happy to be able to share it with the world. She was a role model and had a huge fan base online. She was a huge spokesperson for Ovarian cancer awareness. The strange thing is that Elly never had any family history of anyone else getting Ovarian cancer. She had it at 25. She fought so hard and succeeded as a plus size model after being diagnosed. She demonstrated enormous strength.”

James: “We started shooting before she was diagnosed and then stopped once we found out. A short time later she contacted us and wanted to continue. She wanted it to be part of her story. She was able to spread awareness about Ovarian cancer in the film. She had incredible strength to be a model, make the film and rise to the highest level of modeling; all while fighting cancer.”

Giovanna: “When Elly began to lose weight and her hair was falling out, she was no longer considered a plus size model. Some of the people on social media were shaming her because she had lost her curves. I think that says something about society and its obsession with body image.”

“I found the editing extremely well done.”

James: “I actually did the editing. We wore so many hats cause it was just us. The two of us made the film. We pulled our equipment all over the world. We had a lot of help in post and we took our time in order to represent the models, the community and the subjects as best we could.”

Giovanna: “We wanted to show the models in exotic locations looking stylish, glamorous and beautiful. Seeing them in the professional world people will better understand the importance of it. James worked so hard on the editing so people understand the importance of the plus size community and what they’re doing for the world.”

James: “The plus size clothes are still being made and sold but they’re not talked about or advertised on billboards. The majority of people are above a 12 or 14 but where do you see them? They’re buying them online.”

“Is there a common thread amongst these plus size models?”

Giovanna: “They have all been through the same experience. Even stylists have been body-shaming them for not being thin models. They’d say that they don’t know how to dress a fat model. They all share the common shame as plus size models.”

“Do you see a future where body shaming and body image are no longer an issue and people are more interested in who you are inside?”

Giovanna: “I do but I think it will take cultural shifting. There needs to be radical movements that gets pushed through to say ‘we’re not going anywhere’. That’s called the body positive movement. Fashion week now includes 30% plus size models on the runway. It’s all in thanks to the body positive movement. I think it will take a long time but we all have a responsibility to post and support the movement on facebook and other social media. We also have to talk to young girls, daughters and sisters and tell them its okay and to not feel bad about their body. As filmmakers we have a responsibility to reflect the times that we live in. I would love to be able to contribute at least 1% toward moving forward as a society.”

James: “There needs to be acceptance and normalization. Those are the steps that need to happen in order for society to change. It’s happened throughout society for different aspects, such as civil rights and the LGBTQ community. It’s getting better but we still have huge strides to go. Every social movement needs to go through stages in order to reach normalization. That’s what we try to do in this film, so that somebody leaving the theatre with images in their head can feel ok and fine. They can now see these women as beautiful, where they may not have before. We’re hoping that our 90- minute film can fight against the Millennia/decades of this ideal beauty that’s been forced upon us. It’s not just people within that community, you need to be able to support people that are oppressed the most, otherwise we don’t move forward. We’ll just continue to support.”

“Did you have any financial help with this?”

James: “We did do a small Indiegogo campaign in the very beginning but it’s all self-funded. We wanted to keep creative control of the film but we did talk to networks and they had their own agenda and their own audience. We wanted our own audience and wanted it to appeal to the world. I think it worked out really well in the end and we were able to tell a community story that really represented them. If we would’ve had some monetary influence, they would’ve pushed it into another direction. We’re self-funded and it was quite a struggle but we’re happy to do it.”

“After the film premieres in Vancouver, where does it go after that?”

Giovanna: “We have a few more festivals coming up but we can’t announce them yet. We’re looking to get it into as many places as possible before it goes to VOD and those platforms. They can find more information on our website at www.aperfect14.com For people in Vancouver they can come by Thursday night at 8:30pm at Vancity theatre. The organization is amazing, it’s so organized and it’s beautiful to have them on our side to promote our films.”

“Is there something you both have learned from making this film?”

James: “I didn’t know anything about the modeling industry before starting the documentary, so everything was eye opening to the whole discussion of body-shaming, plus size, along with the fact that I’m not a woman and don’t live through that experience. There is body-shaming amongst men too. Your muscles aren’t big enough to be a man. It’s everywhere and it’s really opened up my eyes to what women go through in terms of how they feel about their body. We let the subjects speak for their communities and themselves and we learned a lot just by listening”

Giovanna: “For me personally, I’ve always had that stigma that I thought it was okay to be bigger. I’ve always had a curvy body. I always struggled with my body image. Making this film has been able to free myself of this perception and understand that its fate that I have the body I have and that I am beautiful with much to offer to the world. They keep teaching me how to love my body and myself. I think it’s been a beautiful experience for me as a woman/filmmaker to make the film and understand the topic. I am close to it because I am a woman who has dealt with a lot of different body issues. It’s a form of freeing myself from all the things society has taught us to believe.”

“Would you say that the premise of this film is to expose the high standards of a modeling agency or is it to make people feel more comfortable in their skin?”

Giovanna: “It’s both because unfortunately society works through the eyes of celebrities and we’re influenced by TV, Netflix, Instagram, whatever you want to call it. We live our lives through the eyes of the industry, the media, the fashion industry, so that’s why we chose models because everyone is fascinated by them. When we decided to talk to them, the public is made aware of where the problem is and then society will understand how important it is to focus on what is wrong.”

“Have you thought about your next film and will it be another powerful documentary?”

Giovanna: “As far as next, we definitely have a couple of ideas but we’d like to start making fictional films as well. We do like the form of documentaries and how you can be so creative when telling a story. I personally love to make documentaries but I’d also like to make fictional films.”

James: “There’s definitely another documentary in the future with the aspect of talking about society in any film, whether it’s fictional or documentary. It should reflect society or point us in a direction where we should go. It should always have a substance to it and a deeper meaning otherwise it risks ringing hollow. Film can transform society by talking about it. I know that both of us are in agreement that whatever it is has to address ‘who we are as humans and what we do’. Our medium is art/film and we’re always going to make important films about people in society.”

Giovanna: ”Filmmaking is an art form. James has been making films for 20 years and I have a degree in journalism. I like travel and adventure and have always been a storyteller. I need to keep creating art that allows me to express myself through storytelling. I love visuals and creating them. I love thinking about new ideas and telling James.”

James: “We go crazy if we don’t create art. We have all these ideas and energy bottled up and we have to do something with it. We are really polar opposites in a lot of things but the core elements are the same. It also helps that we are opposites but have different strengths in different areas. I’m very grounded and she’s very crazy (laughter) and we meet in the middle. That’s where the art happens, between the free spirit and getting things done. I’m a producer and she’s the creative force that comes up with all these ideas. You have to have both of those elements to create art. Without her I have nothing to organize and make. Without me, she would have all these ideas but nobody to put them together. When you combine them, you can make beautiful things.

This was an amazingly candid and very insightful interview. I feel blessed to have had the opportunity. Did I mention, how much I love my job?

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