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Michela Occhipinti Looks to ‘Flesh Out’ W. African Beauty Standards

BERLIN —  Verida is a modern girl who works in a beauty salon, stays glued to social media, and gossips with her friends. But she’s engaged to be married to a man she’s never met, and like many girls her age in modern-day Mauritania, she’s forced to gain weight to meet the demands of a society that views a voluptuous body as a sign of beauty, wealth, and social status.

In “Flesh Out,” which world premiered at the Berlin Film Festival, Michela Occhipinti makes her feature directorial debut with a nuanced portrait of the tradition known as gavage. The film stars newcomer Verida Beitta Ahmed Deiche in the lead role, along with Amal Saab Bouh Oumar, Aichetou Abdallahi Najim, and Sidi Mohamed Chighaly. It’s produced by Vivo Film with Rai Cinema. World sales are being handled by Films Boutique.

Occhipinti spoke to Variety about the inspiration behind “Flesh Out,” and what different beauty standards around the world say about women’s relationships to their bodies.

A magazine article about gavage that you encountered by chance was the starting point for “Flesh Out.” Can you describe how that process took shape?

Several years ago, I was looking at myself in the mirror and thought, ‘I’m aging. I’m getting old.’ I was not happy about it. And I started asking myself, ‘Why am I not happy about it? What’s the problem?’ I started thinking deeply: it’s aesthetic, obviously. But then it’s got to do with death approaching. It’s the first time that you realize that you do expire. You’re already lucky not to have expired before. That and fear of decay. Fear of things ending.

Before that, I didn’t really pay attention to women, and what they do with their bodies. They put fake cheeks. They put fake boobs. They do crazy diets. They do extreme plastic surgery. But why? For aesthetic patterns that change—not only very quickly in the same country, but they change from continent to continent, from country to country. So if they change so much, they don’t exist.

I was looking for a way to tell this story. When I found out the story [of gavage], I thought, ‘This is perfect.’ The viewer will think at the beginning, ‘This person is crazy.’ But little by little, as the film progresses, you cannot do anything but identify.

You first traveled to Mauritania in 2012 to speak with girls and young women about their experiences with womanhood—in particular, the relationship they had with their bodies, and how that relationship was shaped by the expectations placed on them by Mauritanian society. Between the cultural and linguistic boundaries, did you struggle to find women who would speak to you openly about those things? And how did you find Verida Beitta Ahmed Deiche for the lead role?

It was very complicated. I arrived alone. I was with a woman who was with a Mauritanian association, but we didn’t get very far. Then I was lucky enough to meet Sidi [Mohamed Chighaly], the actor, who was also my driver, my fixer, my everything. It was very difficult to make him understand what I was looking for, and why. I was always telling him, ‘Please help me. I need a girl. I need to speak with many girls, so they can tell me their stories, they’ll tell me their grandmother’s stories.’ He had a lot of friends. We started by going out to friends of his friends, cousins. Through him, the approach with the girls was so easy, because they knew him. They really talked.

At that point, I wanted to make a documentary. I was still looking for a protagonist. Finally, I met Verida through Salim, who plays her father, but who actually is her uncle in real life. She was young at that time. I work instinctively. I am not technical. So when I saw her eyes, I thought they were so bright. I knew we could do something. She was the one.

The traditional practice of gavage is scrutinized throughout the film, but “Flesh Out” explores many different facets of what it means – both literally and figuratively – to inhabit the body of a young Mauritanian woman today. While some of Verida’s friends seem to accept the notion that a full-figured body signifies beauty, another complains that “you can never be thin enough.” You have scenes dedicated to henna and skin-whitening creams. The messages these young women are grappling with come as much from the kitchen wisdom of their mothers and grandmothers as TV and the internet. Do you think there’s something larger and universal about those tensions?

Gavage very much still exists in the desert. It’s around 40% of girls, even more, of girls who still undergo gavage at a young age. It’s a tradition. They tell you from the moment that you are small, ‘You will have to undergo gavage.’ Now it’s less and less they’re doing it. In my world, everything speaks to you about how you should appear in a certain way. Who decides these rules? Fashion. Men. I don’t know. I still don’t understand. I don’t have an answer. We think we’re free, but we’re never completely free.

In the city, it happens much less, but it still happens. I thought if this girl I follow doesn’t have in her entourage a friend who does this, a friend who doesn’t do it anymore, I will actually tell a story that is not complete. Since nobody knows anything about Mauritania in the world, they will think that this is the only way that it happens for girls there. But it’s not.

We immediately thought we need to tell the story of a girl in the city, because if we tell the story of a girl in a village, people will look at it and think, ‘It doesn’t concern me. It’s something tribal.’ It’s not tribal. It’s social. If the girl lived in the city, she worked, she read magazines, she did exactly the things that we do, you can identify. They are traditional and modern at the same time. I relate to this girl a lot. I hope the audience will, too.

Verida struggled to get a visa to travel to Europe, and it was unclear if she would make it to the Berlinale. She finally got the approval on the eve of the film’s world premiere. You had to fight with a lot of bureaucrats to make that happen.

What I’m really angry about is that in the 21st century, place of birth is not considered a mere circumstance. Because it’s not a merit. I don’t deserve to be born in a country where I have more freedom, or apparent freedom. I just happen to be born there. How is it possible that people cannot circulate freely in the world, especially if invited? If one person follows a regular process to obtain a visa, why should it not be granted on the basis of not having a bank account, and being a woman. Because that has a lot to do with it. The best thing is to have [the premiere] with them. If they didn’t exist, the film wouldn’t exist either. They are the heart of the film.

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