Elena Rossini is an Italian filmmaker, photographer, director and writer living in Paris.
She’s the kind of girl who likes to tackle her greatest questions in life with a camera, microphone and a whole lot of no-nonsense Italian spirit. This has led to projects like the interview series No Country for Young Women and a website called Gender Gap Grader.
Her biggest and most recent project to date is The Illusionists, a feature-length documentary about unrealistic beauty ideals and the businesses who market them.
Elena shared with us what it’s like to work in an industry where there aren’t that many female role models, what to do if you’re not taken seriously and why body image isn’t just a female thing.
It seems to me like you’re someone who doesn’t hesitate to stand up for what you believe in. I’m wondering what pisses you off the most and why?
I’m very Zen and peaceful but there are a couple of big issues that upset me and I’m pushed to do something about it. Any kind of discrimination like sexism, racism or homophobia makes me very angry. But otherwise, I’m very Zen!
I would stretch out my hand and say, ‘Hi, I’m Elena, I’m a filmmaker.’ People would invariably ask me, ‘Oh are you a film student?’
So pisses off isn’t quite the right word, is it?
Yeah, my approach has always been that if there is an issue that frustrates me, instead of complaining I’d rather do something proactive about it.
So for The Illusionists, I found it ironic to be surrounded by images of women that looked absolutely flawless. The message coming from the media is that if you’re a young woman and you’re beautiful you’ll be happy and successful. I thought, That’s a lie! I started looking to the women around me and found they were all struggling with similar things.
And in my own life, I wasn’t taken seriously when I first moved here in my 20s because I was young and female. The realities are quite different in a field like filmmaking
How did you know that you weren’t been taken seriously? What was your response?
I have a lot of friends that are filmmakers and most of them are male. When they introduced themselves as filmmakers they were taken for their word. People would say, ‘Cool, which films have you worked on?’
When I would stretch out my hand and say, ‘Hi, I’m Elena, I’m a film maker.’ people would invariably ask me, ‘Oh are you a film student?’
I still get it today! I’m in my 30s! So I decided to take advantage of it. If people don’t think I could be a filmmaker, let’s go film in places where you usually need permits! I managed to film a lot of places guerilla style. I still do it now. If you don’t take me seriously, fine!
That’s a nice way to flip it over a really infuriating situation.
Now I’m actually happy about it!
What are the biggest things you’ve learnt about women through your projects?
I don’t know if it’s something that I’ve learnt, but something that I’ve noticed in the past few years is how gender equality has really gone mainstream.
There’s also a lot of talk and stereotypes about women being competitive with one another. But I’ve really found a community of incredibly supportive women. We help each other out and I’ve loved this aspect of sisterhood.
Has how you perceive yourself changed while filming?
I’ve always had a hard time being seriously as a female director, just because we don’t have that many images of them in the media. I made The Illusionists almost entirely by myself. I did the fundraising, producing, directing, I was behind the camera, I edited the film and I did the motion graphics. I did the job of 12 people and once I finished the film I got this sense of accomplishment. I thought, nobody can question that I’m a film director. It’s almost like it’s my card. It made me a lot more confident and I love this feeling!
Was it a feeling you were waiting for? Or was it something you didn’t even know was missing?
I didn’t have that many self-doubts. You have to persevere to make a film, but a lot of people around me would say to me incessantly, ‘Oh you poor thing, it’s taking you so long.’ The doubt came from that, but I could see the finish line. So once it was over, I was like, ‘Hey, it’s here!’
Vote with your wallet whenever you buy a product. Don’t support brands that support sexism.
What for you personally is power? And how do you think women generally can become more powerful if they don’t like what they see in the media?
I have a few suggestions at the end of the film about what people can do to improve the situation. One of them is that you can vote with your wallet whenever you buy a product. Don’t support brands that support sexism.
Something that I do personally is a mass media diet. For instance, I don’t even own a TV. I had to watch TV to get material for the film and I watch a few shows online, or I go to the movies. I don’t buy magazines. I just read the paper but I try to be very selective.
Tell me a bit more about the women you’ve interviewed in your projects so far. What traits do you think unite women around the world, and what are the differences?
For the Illusionists I interviewed lots of women in their 20s, especially students. I found that when it comes to the issue of body image, the similarities far outnumbered the differences.
Whether it was Japan, Lebanaon or the UK, the problem is the same. You have these big companies pushing an ideal that’s against the nature of the population of a specific country. So if you’re in Japan, the ideal is to be beautiful and super white. But the same corporations then sell the opposite in the west. Garnier, L’oreal, they sell whitening creams to one half and tanning lotions to the other.
What do you feel like is the best advice you’ve received?
A producer that I met a few years ago said that in order to be successful in this business you have to cultivate your strength and confidence. Basically, you can’t make it with a thin skin. It’s hard for film making because you associate your identity with your work, so if you get criticism it can hurt. So I’ve been trying to cultivate a sense of inner strength.
How do you cultivate it?
I think it’s experience. One way to do this, which might seem counter-intuitive, is through rejection. When you work in a creative profession like filmmaking you face rejection almost every day of your life. Whether it’s sending your film to a festival or asking for funding. I have received a lot of rejection and it’s helped me become stronger.
My strength of purpose also comes from the outside. I began writing a blog about The Illusionists the minute I knew I wanted to do it. I started to receive emails from people thanking me for making the film but also sharing their experiences, and I always knew that I had to continue.
In the past couple of years, I’ve truly understood the importance of having men as allies.
You were saying before that your creative work is so intertwined with your personal identity. In having this body of work, what do you think is the biggest misconception that people have about you?
At the very beginning of my career I was very much focused on women’s empowerment and picking projects that shed light on sexism and discrimination. So I think the biggest misconception could be that I am forgetting men. But it couldn’t be further from the truth.
In the past couple of years, I’ve truly understood the importance of having men as allies. For instance, when I first wrote the script for The Ilusionsists, 80% of it was focused on women. The more research I did, the more I understood that I needed to include men as well and their body image issues. So, I’m mindful of the other half as well.
On paper, France seems to be doing well. But in reality I still see the country as being very much male-dominated.
I feel like I can’t speak to someone who lives in Paris without talking about French women. What’s the French perspective on things like beauty and sexism?
When it comes to women in France and beauty, the French ideal is very different from the American or Italian ideal of beauty. French women don’t wear as much makeup, but they still spend money on creams and are concerned about their body size.
There has been a lot of effort from the government to push gender equality issues. All these efforts are wonderful, but when you look at people who are in charge, from the president, to the top CEOs, they’re all male.
So on paper France seems to be doing well. But in reality I still see the country as being very much male-dominated.
But I’m super hopeful. I see things changing.
To wrap up, if there was one thing you could say to a young woman who was questioning their value in the world, what would you say?
The biggest piece of advice that I would give to anyone is to not look to the outside for validation. Cultivate it from the inside. Something I’ve done in my own life has been to develop interests and talents that I am in control of, that make me feel stronger. From learning a new language to learning how to play guitar. It’s so helpful when building a sense of self. That would be my my biggest piece of advice.
Find out more about Elena and The Illusionists right here.