What Happens When You Don’t Give Up.
A Blast from the Past, As a Powerful Reminder of What Happens When You Persist Against All Odds
A few days ago I was doing a digital version of the Marie Kondo method, re-organizing and tidying up hundreds of notes I had saved to Evernote. That’s when I stumbled upon an entry titled: “5 year anniversary THE ILLUSIONISTS.” It referred to my feature-length documentary The Illusionists, but I found the title odd, since the film hasn’t had its first anniversary yet. Curious, I began reading, and I immediately realized that I had written a diary-style note on the 5th anniversary of the day I resolved to make a documentary about the globalization of beauty. It was the anniversary of the very beginning.
As a reminder for those not familiar with it, The Illusionists ultimately took eight years to make, from the first spark of inspiration to its public release on VHX. At the time of writing that entry, five years down the line, the situation looked dire and hopeless: filming was complete, but the editing process appeared daunting and I was still doing everything alone, covering the role of 12 people. I was writing to myself, venting my frustrations as a form of catharsis. The formal tone of that entry makes my skin crawl (I attribute that to my Lisa Simpson tendency to always do my best) but there are some raw feelings in there that still come through. Considering all the positive developments that have happened since completing the film, I feel like I owe it to struggling creatives to share the original note and to then talk about what happened in the years that followed, as I stuck it out hopeless day after hopeless day, for seven years, until I found support.
Here is the original note, with a few minor edits. (For those not familiar with the HBO show Enlightened, Amy Jellicoe is the protagonist, a woman underestimated by everyone in her life, who eventually becomes a corporate whistleblower.)
Today marks the 5 year anniversary of the day I decided to make THE ILLUSIONISTS. In a perfect twist of fate, earlier this morning I read a New Yorker post by Emily Nussbaum about a new female archetype: the Hummingbird. It was an uncanny depiction of my life these past five years: “[Hummingbirds] are idealistic feminine dreamers whose personalities are irritants. They are not merely spunky, but downright obsessive.” Ever since watching the season finale of Enlightened, I have re-played the final scene three times already. The first time I broke down in tears. Channeling Amy Jellicoe. I could feel a huge burden lifting off my shoulders. It felt an anticipation of what may be… when I complete The Illusionists. At the same time, I am also aware that there is so much work bringing a film to life and to an audience, that your work is never quite done. You never get a clean, tidy sense of completion — that an accountant or a teacher or a lawyer may have. Something else: once you get all you ever wanted, you realize how complicated things are: not everything is black and white. A backlash may come. Unwanted attention.
I feel like I have walked hundreds of miles into an unknown territory: a jungle so dense it’s now impossible to see my starting point. My destination is still too far away. I often feel lost. Overwhelmed. Lonely. The only feeling still burning deep inside is the obsession Nussbaum touched upon. What’s hard is not the painstakingly slow, hard, lonely work. It’s the reactions of the people all around me. Who more or less openly think I’m insane for doing this. Or pity me. Misunderstandings all around. Except from close relationships forged on Twitter — and then real life — with kindred spirits, whom I have the chance to see face to face once every blue moon, but who give me so much positive energy to fuel my work for weeks.
Triumphs are few and far in between. In five years, I have had so many bleak, difficult work days, that I can count the happy, triumphant ones on one hand, like the day Vogue published a full page article about my film or when my preview screening at the Athena Film Festival received incredible feedback.
It’s so so hard. Reminder to self: next time, think carefully about embarking on such an ambitious journey. Today is a painful day, not one of celebration. I hope the future will be rosier. I owe this to my parents and grandparents who have given me so much love. Can’t give up now.
Something that helps is positive visualization: imagining what my life is like once this project is finished. Must do more of that, exercise more, see friends more frequently, and cultivate other interests. It will be complete at some point. Soon enough. And it will feel amazing.
After writing this note, I spent a year doing postproduction on The Illusionists and another year navigating the world of distribution. Along the way, I found help: allies in the form of talented musicians like Pierre-Marie Maulini of STAL, who composed a brilliant soundtrack; non-profits like The Center for Eating Disorders at Sheppard Pratt and Jewish Community Services in Baltimore (who embraced the film and organized dozens of community screenings for teens and young adults). I found an educational distributor — the wonderful Media Education Foundation — who put The Illusionists front and center in their catalogue, promoting the film to hundreds of schools in the United States and abroad. I was a speaker at events like the 3% Conference and InspireFest, which put the film on the radar of influential people in tech. I was subsequently invited to show The Illusionists at the headquarters of Apple, Facebook, Twitter and Google in Silicon Valley. Employees at Apple called me “inspiring.”
Then came offers from Ivy League schools and major universities to show the film to their students. Harvard University, Cornell, University of Chicago, Northwestern, UCLA, USC to name a few. There have been awards from non-profits, like the Women’s Therapy Center Institute in New York City, for its promotion of positive body image and media literacy.
And then there are daily delights: surprises that come in the form of emails, tweets or unexpected conversations. Some of the most memorable, from the past few months: a teacher sent me a message on Facebook saying: “I showed your outstanding documentary to a group of high school students I teach in China, and it really resonated with them. Thank you so much for making it.” A college student from Nebraska contacted me to ask me about setting up a screening for her women’s group. When I asked her how she found out about The Illusionists, she said her professor had shown the film in a documentary course on “Women in Film.” At a business dinner in Paris with a group of women visiting from DC (and the teenage daughter of one of them), the subject turned to my work; I mentioned I had made a documentary about body image. When pressed to give more details about the film, the teenage girl interrupted me and said, “I’ve seen it. My high school showed your film.” And my absolute favorite anecdote: this past April I was a keynote speaker at a body image conference in Slovenia. On the plane, on my way to Ljubljana, I befriended another conference attendee. We became fast friends and spent most of the conference together. My presentation was on the last day and I had asked her to take a few phone pictures of me on stage, so I could share them with my parents. She emailed me the pictures during my talk, along with this message: “You won’t believe ;))) I used ur movie in so so many my gender classes ;))) not realising it’s ur movie ;) life has its wonderful ways ;)” She later explained she was really bad at remembering names and film titles and realized I was the director of this film she had used in class only when I was on stage, showing clips from The Illusionists.
Life has indeed wonderful ways. Film industry insiders measure success judging a person’s salary. The general public defines a successful filmmaker based on name recognition. I have neither the former, nor the latter. And yet The Illusionists, this crazy ambitious project that everybody thought would be impossible to make on such a small budget, with such a tiny crew, is out in the world, making a dent… from the main auditorium of Apple Inc, to a university in southern Ireland, as far away as a high school in China. The Illusionists is the gift that keeps giving. And I’m indescribably grateful that I never gave up on it.
Schools/non-profits: you can buy a copy of The Illusionists for your educational institution or non-profit organization from the Media Education Foundation: https://shop.mediaed.org/the-illusionists-p153.aspx