The refusal of standards set by an amorphous sexist society, a world that disintegrates. “Do I really need someone?” The question isn’t always uttered, it’s embarrassing, awkward. How to become an adult in a world where there is no room for yourself, not to be in control of time, movement, your own breath? To be unique and not desire another person, anybody? Finding anorexia within your own breath, the supreme Ecstasy. But what ecstasy are we talking about? The director asks.
For 10 years, screenwriter and director Moara Passoni researched anorexia, talked to women suffering from eating disorders, reached out to experts such as Unifesp psychologists (Alessandra Sapoznick, then Proata coordinator), and filmed at Ambulim at São Paulo University. The director participated in many events such as Body Topography at Sesc Paulista. With supreme sensitivity, Passoni decoded in unique ways, the hardships of the relationship between politics and the psyche, the impulses of a woman's totalitarian control over her body and how to reject it, within current practices, the dependence on the other.
Through the character of Clara, the director highlights the passage of the years in which she experienced turbulence in the midst of social and political changes in Brazil during the 1990s, a time when the country had its first democratically elected president since 1964, between childhood innocence and the hecatomb of changes in puberty. It portrays the cheerful and community spirit of Jardim Angela in the popular movements of the 1980s, and the escalation of violence in the late 1980s, early 1990s in São Paulo. She portrays the house - also a kind of political committee - where Moara's parents, social activists, lived as well as her departure from this community, the genesis of her memories, and how she tried to compress life in her own body from 12 to 17 years of age.
The film is an open work of art. And as such, it proposes a range of interpretations. Her voice echoes, and identifies what goes on in a person's psyche, personified through the character of Clara (played at different ages by actresses Alice Vilares, Gigi Paladino, Sara Antunes, Victoria Maranho and Susana Priz). Moara does an excellent job guiding the actors in a delicate but dense way, without appealing to the brutality of skeletal images, depressive bodies, so commonly used in other films and in advertising campaigns created to support “victims” in order to find the space where the body “fits” on the status quo, beauty, and behavioural standards of a world they don't recognise as their own.
Êxtase is not an accusatory film. It listens, delicately, to a poetic whisper that interacts between the various stages of the character's growth. She weaves, as if they were knitting stitches, image and sound, revealing the control of her own internal and external routines in which the character fights against herself in order not to need the other.
Êxtase is not just a film - it is a sensory experience, with peaks of catharsis through overlapping images, which pulsate on the border between documentary and fiction. It displays impeccable photography, and dialogues that cradle and “hook” the viewer. For the first time, the approach to anorexia leaves aside the commonplace, the images of skeletal bodies that depreciate people who cross the barrier of desire, the control of their own body during the various stages of growth that it wanted to contain and control.
It’s impossible not to recognise Moara's screenwriting touch in another big and successful documentary, the 2020 Oscar nominee, The Edge of Democracy. Moara talked to Wall Street International Magazine about the challenges of growing up, anorexia, politics and her own debut as director.
Can social and political disruptions trigger diseases such as anorexia? How?
I think a psychiatrist or psychoanalyst would have a scientific, technical answer to that question. I can only speak from the experience of constructing this film. The project was born ten years ago, when I and Mauricio Ayer—who was writing a thesis on Marguerite Duras—began to discover some unexpected and powerful overlap between the author’s work and my experience with anorexia. More than the rupture itself, in our discussions we began to realize that what I had lived through as anorexia revealed the way the body constitutes itself politically in and through its emotions and power. Better put, it revealed the ways the world in which my experience had confined itself was politically structured.
Anorexia is a paradoxical and tragic gesture that, in its radical refusal, would rather see the body annulled than controlled by the world. As a form of self-affirmation, the absolute control it wields over the body as good as transforms it into an idea, an image. As such, anorexia is understood through this lens of control, while the body is what escapes by its agency. And as anorexia speaks of control over the body, it is something that pervades our whole society, a suffering that is shot all the way through our time. In this sense, anorexia is just one radicalization of this control.
On the other hand, it does strike me as possible to say that the trigger for anorexia in the film is indeed a rupture in the delicate network of community. When people are hostile, or invasive, or cold, they embitter the hearts and souls of the young to such a point that, despairing of community, they conjure up a way to withdraw from it, isolated from it, skeptical of all nourishment, all friendship, lost in a sad pining for a bond they never experienced or experienced too little of, and then lost. It’s a strange pining because it’s for something that was never actually lived. Anorexia is a tragic remedy for this pining: it’s an attempt to cure oneself of isolation through isolation.
You are "forced" by external issues (your mother wins election for federal deputy and the family leaves the Jardim Ângela neighbourhood in São Paulo for Brasilia). Speaking of social protection, your home was practically a community center between people and you; either knew or didn’t know, that would come and go. Then, moving into a mysterious Brasilia, through your perspective at that time - the eyes of a child, do you think this migration could have been the trigger for your anorexia?
I don’t see anorexia as the effect of some cause. It’s hard to pinpoint any single fact that triggers it. So much so it’s actually hard to discern precisely when it starts. There’s a moment you realize you’re in it, but ascertaining exactly when it began is near impossible. There’s a manner of being that is gradually built out of your daily experiences, whether traumas or validations and then you’ll suddenly find yourself in a place where you can see the qualitative change that has occurred in the way you deal with, respond to and process those experiences. And by the time it hits you, it’s as if there is no other place you can be, other than inside anorexia. In my personal life, leaving Jardim Ângela actually happened a little differently, but narratively, in the film, it’s the place of community.
Orson Welles used to say that all his films were about the search for paradise lost. Here, Rosebud is Jardim Ângela. But in Welles, that’s the root cause of everything, while here, the causes are many. So, leaving that community wasn’t exactly a trigger, but the counterpoint between the community of Jardim Ângela and Brasilia is palpable in the film.
This organically-grown neighbourhood, with such a strong sense of community, clashes with the solitary existence of life in a purpose-built political city like Brasilia. And the very notion of designing a whole city, start-to-finish, connects, in a way, with the manner in which anorexia controls the body, to the extent that you actually feel you are redesigning it according to your own blueprint. In fact, there’s a clear opposition between the grassroots, body-to-body street-level politics of the social movements, with their radical necessities and communality, and the institutionalised politics of the Federal District, where there is no body, no transparency, where it’s all formalities, disputes, and negotiations.
It is difficult to distinguish between intelligence and madness, do you think this also occurs or is amplified with anorexia? How and when did you first identify, and discover the feeling ecstasy that may come as a result of anorexia? Does it feel somewhat addictive?
This question of intelligence and madness is a reference to Alain Resnais’ Hiroshima Mon Amour, for which Marguerite Duras wrote the screenplay. The character, a French actress, tries to remember her experience with madness during the time she was locked up in a cellar. She says that madness is like intelligence: when you’re inside it, everything makes sense. But afterwards, when you emerge from it, you can’t get back in.
My immersion in anorexia was like that too—it was progressive and imperceptible to myself. I only realized what was happening when I was finally emerging from it. I started making this film whilst in a place still close to anorexia, even though it was already, by that stage, a thing of the past, I was still very strongly connected to the experience. Over the years I’ve managed to peel myself away from it, and today I feel entirely free of it. For as long as I was unable to understand the pleasure I derived from those years in anorexia, I was incapable of deconstructing them, that is, of working against anorexia.
The film explores various phases of the life of the main character, Clara. It touches on everything from; her alter-ego, childhood, expulsion from school due to kissing a classmate, parties, ballet, (one of the most beautiful, poetic compositions of the ballerina’s body, that I have seen in documentaries and films), what was the most ecstatic phase for you during the anorexia period?
The character, Clara, is largely built out of my experience, but she also incorporates the words, notes and experiences of various other women.
For me, anorexia was an ecstasy, something totally paradoxical. Ecstasy is also a sort of limit—a boundary experience. Because dwelling too long in ecstasy means death. There’s this pleasure, but it’s on a knife-edge, the verge of the abyss. Hence the entirely necessary collapse. In the film, at the height of her ecstasy, Clara ends up in a hospital, where she tries to retake control. But there comes a time when this ecstasy short-circuits and is about to blow.
At 7 years old you ‘invented’ that you were a vegetarian. From 12 to 17, do you create your own time, your own routine, was anorexia a tool in these creations?
Anorexia is a lived experience, a process, an episode, a way of being, not a tool. I gradually pieced together a routine. My day was divided up into the time to eat, time to exercise, time to study, time to sleep, all very precisely delineated. In between these slices of day, I couldn't relax, and if anyone tried to interrupt this routine I would bawl them right out of the room. The repetition of this regime, and the stemming of the body’s vital fluxes—I didn’t eat, didn’t menstruate…—ended up creating a sense of eternal time, to the point that I lost all track of what happened when between the ages of 12 and 18. It was as if those six years were a static blur.
Perhaps anorexia is a little like a performance, which hovers halfway between aesthetic creation and life. But in anorexia there’s none of the conscious decision-making you have in art, in the artistic act. You just live it. I lived the control and the pleasure it gave me. But, unlike a performance, it wasn’t done to be seen. In fact, to be seen was the last thing I wanted. I just wanted to hide under baggy clothes, covering myself from chin to toe.
That said, there may be other women out there who experience anorexia in another way, and try to draw attention to themselves. But not me. I hid my body. The anorexic body is disturbing, but it’s a generalisation to say that it “is done” to shock, because I think that would be a mistake.
I think we have to give more thought to, and explore more deeply, this reflection about anorexia and hysteria. Is anorexia a contemporary hysteria? Both are bodies society cannot tame. But hysteria has an important aspect of seduction, a sexuality that mixes in, finds no social limits and just overflows. In anorexia, sexuality is totally contained. In my case, desire just got pulled apart.
What’s important to note is that there is no specific description of what anorexia is or is not. Whatever common denominators there may be, I think each woman suffers it differently, in a manner closely linked to her own personal history.
What were the results you felt from anorexia in your body and psyche? Does it influence your creativity with regard to making films, of seeing others as yourself?
I don’t see my creative place as being related to anorexia. In fact, I think making this film was about acting against anorexia, not from it. For example, I wanted to lend time and narrative to an experience that works against time. On the other hand, I think anorexia made me more open and more porous to the other. And it was precisely that opening-up that allowed me to overcome anorexia.
Desire fights with our sense of control all the time, the two are constantly pulsating. When did the desire gain control?
The film pulsates in this relationship between control and desire. Ecstasy in anorexia is a sort of confluence of the two, it’s where desire meets control. This ecstasy is a boundary experience precisely because, if taken any further, it leads to the total annulment of the body and, in the final analysis, death.
In my case, there was a tug-of-war which desire won. Luckily for me, it overpowered control. One night, I found myself in front of the open refrigerator, devouring everything in sight, and I had no idea how I got there.
After that day, the sensation I have is that I never managed to regain that level of control I had achieved over my body. It had a lot to do with various therapeutic processes, life experiences, things I lived through at the time. All I know is that, at a certain juncture, desire broke through, bringing the body back to life in its full vigor. From that point on, try as I might, there was no controlling that body, I just had no power over it anymore. It was devastating. Like feeling pain for the first time.
The images in the film are extremely delicate, flat sequences that pull us and activate our sensory channels so that we are able to fit into the skin and soul of the character. Over the last few years you co-wrote the documentary The Edge Of Democracy with Petra Costa, who now produces your debut as a director, how did these films and the team “feed” your eyes to direct your first feature after 10 years of research and production?
A lot of this film was conceived before Petra and I started working together. We’ve been collaborating for a number of years now, and a shared vocabulary has emerged from that, a shared sensibility. I have learned a lot from my collaboration with Petra, in ways I perhaps couldn’t even begin to say. What I do know is that she is an artist with a fascinating internal universe that is in constant ebullition. She’s a director who builds emotions in film with such mastery, and an extremely powerful liberty. She fights to the very end to achieve a voice of her own. Petra has found that voice as an artist, and that’s plain to see. For that alone, she has taught me so much!
The film being released at the competitive exhibition of CPH: DOX (Copenhagen Documentary Festival), without being able to be seen (yet) on the big screen due to the current unprecedented situation - a pandemic, the specialised critic praises it. How it has been the experience of launching a film in one of the biggest festivals in the world, receiving several positive returns in the midst of a global crisis, the world is living anorexia in search of ecstasy?
It is hard to say anything about our world today: since last Wednesday we’ve been watching the world flip upside down, right? Amidst all this, the festival where the film is coming to the world went virtual. This film that talks about anorexia will be released in a very similar condition to our character - virtually, and isolated from other bodies.
Of course, as a filmmaker, it is sad not having the physical experience of sharing your film in that dark room, on the big screen and surrounded by other bodies-hearts-souls. Somehow I always thought I was making this film for theaters. This physicality that gives to the experience what I tried so hard to destroy - my own body.
Besides that, screening a film is always a huge learning event: how will the audience react to what you have created, tried to say, tried to articulate?
I don’t know if, as a society, we are searching for ecstasy. But yes, we’re living in a world in which people respond to a series of control mechanisms that deprive them of a sense of time and in which the stuff of existence is slipping through their fingers. Perhaps it’s not so much an ecstasy as a sort of standing outside oneself.
The etymology of the word ecstasy, from the Greek ékstasis, means precisely that: to stand outside, as if people experienced ecstasy by stepping outside of their proper self. Suddenly fate has thrown us all into this immediate, unavoidable need to think of the world as a big community and to understand ourselves as connected to one another.
Is "salvation" in the connections we have established?
I think so. The world heals through connection with others, in the gaze, in the understanding that we are all part of the same whole. We’re all part of the same living body. I think that salvation lies in our capacity to love. From openness to and ability to negotiate with the other. However disruptive and disturbing the other, and love itself, may be.
Êxtase will screen on Visions du Reel Festival.