The gavage ritual – for which the bride-to-be must gain weight in order to reach an ideal standard of beauty – is at the core of Michela Occhipinti’s Flesh Out, presented in the Panorama section of the Berlinale. Set in Mauritania, a country virtually unknown on the screen which is recounted as suspended between atavistic traditions and rising modernity, the film is singularly in tune with the other Italian titles presented in Berlin as it focuses on (female) identity, the body and the refusal of imposed models. In the words of the director: “Some time ago I was looking in the mirror and I discovered my first wrinkles. I was getting old and there wasn’t much to do except accepting it with wisdom and grace. But from that moment on, I started observing the women around me, and I realized that many of them are obsessed by crazy standards of beauty, who impose an excessive loss of weight or blowing up their own features.”

To question all this, the 50-year-old director, born in Rome but living between Morocco and Hong Kong, Congo and Switzerland, choses an African story. The young Verida (played by newcomer Verida Beitta Ahmed Deiche) is about to celebrate the marriage that was combined by her parents. It is obliged to follow the gavage ritual in order to reach approximately 100 kilos, symbol of wealth and wellness, but also of acceptance of the requests of his groom’s family. Ten meals per day, waking up at night to drink huge cups of milk, the scale that never shows the right weight. A modern girl working in a beauty salon, Verida sees her girl friends and uses social networks, while taking us to a journey through dangerous pills and wengala, i.e. parties full of food and dance, whitening creams for those who dream to study abroad, multiple divorces. Produced by Vivo Film and Rai Cinema, the film is sold internationally by Films Boutique.

You managed to blend documentary and fiction, and took us to a country where traditions and modernity coexists. How did you and the scriptwriter Simona Coppini work on these topics?

I went to Mauritania in 2012 for one month with Sidi Mohamed Chighaly, who in the film play the guy who brings the scale. I went to the people’s houses and asked tons of questions. In a beauty salon an old woman showed me the stretch marks on her arms, a symbol of great beauty. In the past the gavage was an extreme ritual, to be accomplished in the course of one single night, and many people died. Today it is no longer like that, but in the villages in the desert it is still quite popular for young girls, also because it anticipates the menarche.

Why did you choose an urban story and a modern character?

We didn’t want the audience to consider the gavage as a tribal ritual. We aimed at identification. In Mauritania today, only the 20% of the girls are forced to gain weight, all the others do it on purposes. They go to the wengala to gain two or three kilos. We are the exact opposite, so obsessed by being slim.

Did you discover any similitudes with respect to the Western culture?

Aesthetic values change from decade to decade, from culture to culture. It’s not a matter of gaining or lose weight, but the process of mortification and emotional suffering that it entails. Why should I lose weight? Why should I get a facelift for my wrinkles? Who makes the rules?

How did you choose your protagonist, who is a newcomer?

Verida has a happy and sad face at the same time. For the shooting of certain difficult scenes, she resorted to her personal experiences.

The imposition of the gavage on Verida comes from another woman, her mother, while her father, who remains in the background, looks more sympathetic.

Flesh Out is a film about women in a society in which men rule outside their homes and women rule inside. Certain things are decided by women.

It’s also a question of social differences between rich and poor.

Eating so much food in a country stricken by the famine where half of the population is poor is a paradox. But it’s just the same between the wealthy West and other areas of the world.

Will the film be screened in Mauritania?

There are no cinemas in Mauritania, but we’ll organize a screening anyway, and I am very scared about that. In Mauritania cinema is basically represented by one director, Abderrahmane Sissako, who helped us during the production and is a great filmmaker.

There is a number of Italian documentary filmmakers who look for inspiration far from home. I think of directors such as Minervini and Gianfranco Rosi. What’s your opinion about this?

Personally, I am not interested in recounting what I already know. I want to discover something. I love what’s different and far from me, something in which I can find points of contact. Eventually one realizes that we are all the same, and I don’t understand why we tend to fight each other.