This is a cross post that also appears on my blog at theillusionists.org.
February 2nd holds a special significance for me: it was on this day, exactly 9 years ago, that I resolved to become a filmmaker. In the evening of 02.02.02, sitting on my tiny, sarcophagus-like childhood bed, I watched in awe Steven Soderbergh’s “Traffic.” And all the question marks about my future suddenly evaporated. For the first time in my life, I knew with certainty what I wanted to do: to become a filmmaker. Looking back now, I’m amazed it took me so long (some 22 years) to realize something that had been so obvious all along. My passion for photography, writing, and graphic design, along with my geekiness, activist tendencies and my insatiable curiosity found the perfect match in filmmaking.
My biggest mistake so far, as a filmmaker: I set aside my natural instincts (of the anti-conformist, individualist variety) and I tried to conform, following a well-paved path. It led me to a wall as big as the Great Wall of China. The casualty: this project, “The Illusionists.”
I have been in France for almost five years now. I have many friends who work in film and television: actors, writers, directors and editors. They all wax lyrical about the French film system, how much money is invested in the arts and how easy it is to get a film made.
There are some restrictions/limitations, which directors usually don’t mind: if you want to get your film funded in an official capacity, you have to wait to start filming till you have 100% of the budget. (OK, I can do that, I thought.)
Money for films/documentaries comes from TV networks. After you secure a deal, you can start asking for additional funds to various organizations, like the mighty CNC. Without a deal with a network, you can forget all about it. (I could wait, I thought.)
The advantage of the French system is that once a project is greenlit, you can comfortably start production (since the entire budget is secured) and you are practically guaranteed to have your film shown on TV. In countries like the United States, most documentary filmmakers usually start filming immediately, raising a little money here and there through grants and donations, but they have no guarantees that anyone would see their work.
My chief motivation for making The Illusionists (read the synopsis here) is to have it become an educational tool, seen primarily by high school and university students, hoping to enlighten them about the powerful interests behind mass media, advertising, and a plethora of industries. So that these young adults will enter their adult lives with acute awareness about the beauty myth and hopefully some weapons to defend their self-esteem.
And so, I have developed the patience of a Zen monk: I have entrusted the project in the hands of my producers, in charge of setting up meetings with television executives to pitch the project.
No commercial TV network, supported by advertising, would touch the project. Too risky for their economic interests.
The top executive of my favorite TV network (highbrow cultural programming! no advertising!) scheduled a meeting with my producer and me a couple of months ago. There had been numerous negotiations for almost a year, which always gave the impression that a deal was imminent.
The meeting didn’t go well. The executive told me that the project was too international and “Anglo-Saxon” (her exact words) for her taste. She didn’t like my aesthetic approach (too elegant, she liked hand-held style documentaries, they look ‘more real’). And unless I appeared in the film, and talked about my relationship with my personal appearance, we didn’t have a deal. I was shocked to hear this in the temple of highbrow cultural programming. In the proposal in front of her, the executive had my tentative list of interviewees: Umberto Eco, Noam Chomsky, Susie Orbach, Jean Kilbourne. No, the executive wasn’t interested in that. Forget the experts, she said. What about a scene in which you walk in front of construction workers and measure their reactions to you? Do they find you pretty? Are you too old for them?
18 months of trying. No deal. Back to square one.
The most ironic thing of all: a new-found concern over my personal appearance finally prompted me to take a drastic decision.
I should explain. I have been intensely stressed out and miserable over the Groundhog Day-fate of “The Illusionists” (everyday looking the same, with not a shred of positive news, for over a year and a half). During the past six months my hair started to fall out in big clumps. I would be lightly passing my hand over my wet hair after a shower, and hundreds of hairs would get caught in between my fingers. The situation got so severe that I consulted many doctors and started to wear a knit cap at all times. Obsessively wondering about the fate of my scalp and mourning the beautiful locks of a bygone time. A quasi-body image activist with body dysmorphic disorder, I thought. How ironic!
Well, things are under control now. The diagnosis: telogen effluvium provoked by stress. The treatment: oligotherapy and essential oils. Yoga. Cycling. And a kir royale every now and then.
But more importantly, a new mantra: forget TV networks; seek private funding. You can do this.
Filled with hope, I’m marching on. Ever since taking this decision, I’ve been feeling energized, motivated, less stressed, and hair has stopped falling off in such dramatic quantities. But more amazing than all that, a small army of friends and acquaintances has come forward, volunteering to help me complete this project. I have been feeling like George Bailey at the end of It’s A Wonderful Life. (Thankyouthankyouthankyouthankyou!)
The new strategy for the film: private funding. Starting now. A mix of donations from organizations, patrons, as well as a crowdfunding campaign.
The goal: to raise TWICE as much money as originally thought. Yes, you heard me right. 50% would go into the making of the film and 50% would be donated (in equal measure) to five non-profit organizations that support girls, women, and more specifically healthier images in mass media.
For now, I cannot divulge more. But I would be so grateful if you could sign up for our new newsletter (to keep up to date with our campaigns) and share this article with your friends and loved ones. We need as many supporters as possible: we are going up against very powerful players. I truly believe that an army of Davids can successfully defeat this world’s Goliaths.