LRM Exclusive Interview With Flesh Out Writer-Director Michela Occhipinti

Living in a world where the majority of women’s looks are dictated by the media and being skinny is glamorized, one would never imagine that there are parts of the world where the polar opposite is encouraged, celebrated and required by tradition. This is known as gavage, where one is force-fed before marriage to add an extra 100 kg in order reach the ideal size, which in turn showcases family wealth. I imagine this would be the ultimate nightmare for those who strive to be waif thin, thanks to fashion runways and magazines. Writer-Director, Michela Occhipinti has broached this very topic of savage in a very intriguing and clever script, with her latest release, Flesh Out.

During the Berlinale film fest, we had a chance to sit down for a one on one with Occhipinti, to delve into this very enlightening and contemplative film, which leaves the viewer much to ponder on. We chatted in great length about this ancient tradition, how the director came about scripting her film, the extensive search in finding the right cast, and how well the film has been received by audiences so far. I, for one, had no idea the great impact Flesh Out would have on me, and I trust it will have you talking about it with your friends too. As Occhipinti notes, we are all the same and it is a shame humans fight each other, instead of sticking for the greater common good of our planet and those in need.

LRM: Michela, please tell me about his script and why you chose to tell this story?

Michela: All right. A long time ago, around 2010, it’s a very personal thing. I was looking at myself in the mirror. Not just one particular time, but in that period, I started seeing my lines on the face, and I was a bit struck by it. I thought, “Why? Okay, I’m aging. It’s okay. There’s going to be a link to it. I’m aging, but why does it bother me so much? Is it only about aesthetics, or is there something else?” And I started then reflecting on how you start approaching decay and death utlimately.

Because it’s a visual thing, it is the first visual sign that most of your life has passed by. And then I started making a broader reflection on we women and girls, on what we do to our bodies to try to follow aesthetic patterns. And I started noticing how many women have fake boobs, fake cheeks, go on unbearable diets… Why? To comply to beauty models that are dictated by whom? By fashion, by men, by the market? I don’t know…

It also has a lot to do with personal freedom. So I thought, “I want to tell this story, but I want to tell it from a totally different perspective.” And I bumped into an article, a very short article that talked about gavage and then I thought: “This is the story.”

At first glance it seemed so crazy, but we are doing exactly the same. The shape you’re trying to obtain is totally secondary. Whether it’s aiming to be fat or aiming to be thin or aiming to be young or aiming to be something that you’re not already, the path is exactly identical. Whether you’re taking fattening pills or pills to get thinner. So, I thought, “This is the perfect way and nobody knows about this subject”. So, it’s interesting to dive in.

LRM: I know that there are these religious traditions in different countries, but, I didn’t know if this story, in particular, was something personal to you.

Michela: No, I started from just a reflection on women’s bodies, then it can be declined in so many different ways. But, it’s just whatever the shape you’re trying to obtain, the process is the same. We’re all trying to change our image to comply to something that doesn’t exist.

Because, if there was only one beauty model in all the world, I would still question it. But, I would think, “Okay.” But, since they change so much, they don’t exist and then why in a place you should state that something is beautiful and something is not? And in the other case, the other way round?

LRM: Yeah, it really makes you question what is normal, what is not. Where did you film the movie?

Michela: It’s filmed in Nouakchott, the capital of Mauritania. I know that the practice of gavage is still quite wide in the desert, in the villages. In the city, it’s a small percentage. But, for the script, with the co-writer we immediately thought that if we told the story of a girl in the desert, the viewer would think that it doesn’t concern him or her, that it’s something tribal.

But it’s not, it’s social. We chose a girl in the city so we can relate to her, because she does exactly the things we do: she works, she hangs out with her friends, she goes to bars, she chats on WhatsApp, she reads magazines, she listens to music. I think it is difficult not to identify with her at a certain point, at least in the film.

LRM: For anyone reading this, can you explain what gavage is?

Michela: Gavage is the practice of force-feeding. They feed you many, many times a day, you’re waking up at night, milk, couscous, millet, lamb, very greasy and substantial food so that you gain enough weight. They tend to try to get to 100 kilos, something like that. So it’s a bit draining on your body and your psychology.

LRM: Why are they trying to get this weight?

Michela: Because first of all it’s a sign of wealth, because if you can feed well your daughter, it means that you’re wealthy. It’s a symbol of social status. And also, when they do it to young girls, they develop earlier, and so they can be promised or given in marriage to a man. In Mauritania it’s the man who gives the drowry to the bride’s family.

So you’re going to obtain also something in return, and also you’re going to get rid of your daughter economically, because the bride will go live with the husband’s family. So it’s got to do with culture but also with economics, and it’s considered beautiful. There are many girls who don’t do it anymore… Young girls now… I have met some, I have talked quickly to them. They don’t even know what it is. Others, even though they don’t do gavage, they still want to be full. Because I talked to many women, and they said, ‘No, no, I don’t do gavage anymore.’ But then they were very full.

So, they don’t do gavage, but they are providing for themselves to eat well. Some girls go to the desert to be fattended by a gaveuse, a woman who is in charge of force-feeding,  some go to wengala that is a lunch after lunch, like Amal in the film, she wants to put on a couple of kilos. If I have an important wedding and I want to fit in a specific dress, I will do the opposite. I will go on a diet, try to lose a couple of kilos, so that you don’t see the top of my tummy. So we are exactly the same. That’s what amazes me.

LRM: Why can’t the girls there pick somebody else to marry? Why can’t she be with a guy of her choosing, rather than an arrangement?

Michela: It’s a cultural thing and it doesn’t happen in every family. Many girls now can choose by themselves. What I found really interesting is that they can easily divorce after that. I’ve traveled and worked a lot in the Middle East and in Arabic countries in general, and I’ve never heard about this, but the first marriage is often combined by the parents, the families. But then, as a woman, you could easily get divorced. Like Amal, when she was 17, she got married to a man chosen by her family and after a month, she got divorced. And she didn’t marry again. They can remarry and then divorce and then remarry and then divorce. But what is the most amazing is they are much more open-minded than us on this matter. The more they get divorced, the more men think they are desirable because they are experienced. Which is completely baseless. But it’s what the women told me.

LRM: Wow, that’s really surprising to hear.

Michela: I never married, but if I married three times, and got divorced, people would say, okay, don’t marry anymore. It happens. People don’t praise you for that and it is not that you are considered more attractive if you are multi-divorced. What fascinates me in the world, is that there are contradictions in every society. We are all totally crazy. So why are we having so many problems between populations and different cultures? Why aren’t we more interested in focusing in the similarities?

LRM: What was the perception of the film among the people and the cast that you were making the film?

Michela: The beginning was really complicated because they saw this crazy lady who wanted to ask the same questions to a lot of girls …and I was looking for a girl that inspires me. You know what was the key access to them? It was me coming back again and again. They really understood that I was passionate about it. That I really wanted to make it… it was very complicated because… For instance, after two weeks of my first scouting, we found a girl and a family that seemed really good and the father and mother agreed. And after a couple of weeks we were all happy. We said, okay. So, we are at a good point. Then the father called us and said, ‘oh, sorry, we cannot do it because the uncle said, no…And that’s where I started understanding the complexity of the social structure and family hierarchy…I don’t know either what exactly the social status of that particular member of the family was within the family. I was going to quit many times because it was complicated. But I’m not a quitter in general, in life. And they really felt it.

LRM: How was the film received here in Berlin so far?

Michela: I tell you, yesterday it was maybe one of the most emotional nights of my life because for me being selected in Berlin is like a rollercoaster. Because I never thought that I would ever come to such a big festival and then I was overjoyed because the cast, Verida, Amal and Sidi finally made it, they were not granting the visas for the girls until the last minute. So they arrived yesterday morning. They were supposed to arrive on Friday. And I am also very glad I read good reviews too.

LRM: The women that you finally cast in your film were really great actors. Did they have any form of training before?

Michela: Yesterday Verida said this story is 70% based on her personal life. She never acted. She did a couple of adverts but non speaking parts and Amal, never acted in her life. In fact, she’s a filmmaker. She’s young. She’s 24. She made a very interesting short film. I trained them during shooting because most of the time they arrived on set they didn’t know a single line. So, for the first two hours, we would repeat them, and it’s double time because you say the line, then you say it in Arabic, then they ask questions, they translate again. So everything took double time.

Michela: At the beginning, they were a bit too much. And I tried to tone them down… And they were amazing.  Amal is a natural. Verida is amazing because she has this depth. That’s why I chose her. When I saw her, I didn’t know if she would act well, but she did. For me, it’s all in her eyes.

LRM: As a female filmmaker, why did you feel that this story in itself was important for you to make. For people to see.

Michela: For me, it’s important because I hope that it will let the viewers ask themselves some questions rather than giving themselves answers and more than anything… I really wanted to tell the story for a personal reason. Even if only one girl gets out of the film saying, ‘You know what? If here it is considered beautiful to be thin and in another part of the world it is considered beautiful to be fat, if aesthetic patterns are so different, then they don’t exist.” I’m thinking especially about young girls.

LRM: What have you learned from this experience?

Michela: I learnt one thing that whatever you do, whatever film you do, whatever genre you do…if you’re doing something that starts from a personal point, you have to be really honest. Authentic. I hope it does come out in this film. That it is not something that you’re doing for a specific goal or an aesthetic reason…

LRM: What are your goals for the future? Do you have anything lined up? What would you like to do next?

Michela: In the last two months, I have had a project that is not leaving my mind. It has to do with… We are completely used to other peoples misery. We see it and then we go on. I am amazed at how we don’t stop immediately, whatever we are doing. And if we just don’t do things to help people and the planet, we are in deep shit. A lot of people sleep in the street. We pass by them….I was walking one day, and I went past, and I said, why I’m I watching without seeing? Why I’m I not stopping? Why I’m I not stopping and asking this person how are you? Do you need a blanket? Where are you from? Did you eat today?

LRM: And where do you think you will make this one? In which country?

Michela: I would like to shoot in the US. I want to go in a place between the border Oregon, California. I spot it already. But from a totally different perspective.


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