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
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.