Editor's Note: Rodrigo Prieto the director and screenwriter for Likeness, spoke with PolicyMic during the film's run at the 2013 Tribeca Film Festival. Now that the film is available online, we are re-publishing the interview. Likeness, starring Elle Fanning, follows a young girl through her struggles with body image and an eating disorder.
PolicyMic (PM): What was the inspiration for making 'Likeness'?
Rodrigo Prieto (RP): Likeness came about when Rhea Scott and Jacqueline Bosnjak asked me if I was interested in directing a short with a subject matter of my choosing with a "social conscience" for Lilly Hartley of Candescent Films. I looked into my heart to find something that deeply mattered to me, and immediately the subject of eating disorders came to my mind. My daughter Ximena, who is 18 now, went through a strong bout with anorexia a few years back. It was extremely hard on her and on all of us as a family as we had no idea what to do about it. When I asked Ximena if she was okay with me making a short film about eating disorders, she was very enthusiastic about it. She started doing research and sent me images and music. I started playing with ideas and asked her input all the time. She would tell me what felt phony to her and what felt authentic. I did not want to do a "public announcement" spot, or a documentary. My goal was to make a short narrative that would attempt to get into the mind of a teenage girl and explore some of the emotions that she goes through that lead to eating disorders.
PM: How is this film different from other cinematic portrayals of eating disorders?
RP: I have seen some very powerful documentaries about this subject. I have not seen any fiction film that focuses on eating disorders, although there must be some out there. Likeness is not a traditional narrative; it follows a series of images created in the mind of Mia, the main character, played by Elle Fanning. It is completely subjective, presenting a vision of the world around her as she sees it.
PM: Historically speaking, when did society begin to recognize eating disorders as actual medical conditions?
RP: I don't think there is a long history of awareness of eating disorders as a mental illness. I am no expert in the history of the issue, but I do know what it feels like to be helpless as a father as you see your daughter whittling away. I remember growing up in Mexico City and hearing about very isolated cases of people who would vomit to be thin. It may have been more prevalent than it seemed, but I don't remember it being an issue of much concern back then, perhaps due to a lack of awareness. It is much different today. I do think that the constant bombardment of false body images presented all around us has contributed to what seems to have become an epidemic of sorts. The National Eating Disorders Association reports that between 7 to 10 million women, and around 1 million men suffer from anorexia nervosa or bulimia in the U.S. alone, plus the many cases that remain unreported. Eating disorders have the highest mortality rate of any mental illness, so it seems to me that it is quite crucial to create higher awareness about this issue in our society.
PM: What power do films have to promote eating disorder awareness? On the flip side, how can they do this work when films (and Hollywood ideals) promote unrealistic body image?
RP: Film is a powerful medium, there is no doubt about that. As you say, films and TV have contributed to create impossible ideals of beauty in our society. It is time to reverse this trend. Of course, our little film will not do that, but we do hope that Likeness is seen by as many young people as possible through the internet. My wish is that kids and teens see it and can identify with Mia and say, "that is how I feel sometimes!" and by seeing Elle Fanning playing the part they can feel safe to talk about it. There is much shame attached to eating disorders, and the more we talk about it, the easier it will be for people suffering from these illnesses to look for help. I hope that Likeness helps by showing some feelings and emotions of insecurity we can all relate to, which can lead to bulimia or anorexia. When I asked my daughter Ximena if she could help me make the film, she told me that a big part of dealing with anorexia was being open about it.
PM: Are eating disorders more prevalent today than they were 50 years ago? Or are they just more openly discussed?
RP: Both. But I don't think it is as openly discussed as it ought to be. It is still somewhat of a taboo to admit that you have an eating disorder. Many still regard it as a "just get over it!" kind of problem. It is a very serious illness and I do believe that as a society we can't turn our eyes and hearts away from the plight of the millions suffering from it.