The New York Times

The New York Times

"Watching the Battle of Woman Vs. Body," Elizabeth Jensen
- November 6, 2006

It seems counterproductive to train cameras on the residents of an eating disorders clinic, girls and women already so obsessed with their bodies that they starve themselves. But as becomes clear in the course of "Thin," HBO's film shoot inside the Renfrew Center, a 40-bed clinic in Coconut Creek, Fla., the anorexic and bulimic women are struggling with concerns that go far beyond appearance.
 
It's not just about women not wanting to eat and wanting to look like a movie star; these are very serious disorders," said Gayle Brooks, the center's vice president and clinical director.  "The struggle wasn't them lamenting every day 'How fat I am.' It was a struggle with relationships, with feelings, with trauma."

For six months in 2004 the filmmaker Lauren Greenfield and her team followed the early morning weigh-ins, where some patients faced backwards so they couldn't see the numbers; the silent stares at meal times; the angry individual and group psychiatry sessions; and the dispassionate staff discussions about the patients.

From the hundreds of hours spent filming, she extracted intimate stories of Polly Williams, who attempted suicide after eating two slices of pizza; Brittany Robinson, a 15-year-old who’s mother herself refused to eat when she came for a visit; Alisa Fliss, 30, a mother of two; and Shelly Guillory, 25, a psychiatric nurse who had fed herself for five years through a stomach feeding tube.

Compared with past treatments of the subject, "Thin" places less emphasis on the logistics of binging and purgin.  There's a little in the way of medical explanation either.  Instead, viewers sort out for themselves the complex psychological underpinnings, and the value of Renfrew's tough-love approach.

The documentary - which will be shown Nov. 14 on HBO and is also the subject of a book and exhibition in Los Angeles - is the first film made by Ms. Greenfield, a still photographer, and was produced in collaboration with R.J. Cutler ("American High," "The War Room"), who helped Ms. Greenfield navigate the TV world.  Ms. Greenfield, who is 40 and a member of the VII photojournalism collective in Los Angeles, first visited Renfrew for Time magazine, in 1997, then returned for her widely praised 2002 book "Girl Culture," (Chronicle Books) which examined, in her words, "how the body ahd become the focus of identity" for young women.

She had proposed turning the book into a series of films, but Sheila Nevins, HBO's documentary unit president, was most interested in Renfrew. "I had the wrong notion," Ms. Nevins, "that these were women who would look at Vogue and Seventeen too much and want to get thin.

Ms. Greenfield approached her subject as "the most extreme and pathological body project" she had yet undertaken, "a mental illness that had this visual component." Much of the filming was done by Amanda Micheli; Ms. Greenfield said her own strength was gaining the confidence of the patients for such extraordinary access.

While inside Renfrew, the filmmakers found times of easygoing camaraderie, which Ms. Greenfield equated to college dorm life.  "It had the fun and girl bonding and cliques and gossip," she said in an interview. Ms. Williams was eventually kicked out of the program for giving pills to Ms. Guillory and getting a tattoo on a day trip.,

Fleeting moments of fun aside, not one of the women in "Thin" leaves cured. "We would have loved to have had some stories of the many women who come through and really make a lot of movement in their recover," Ms. Brooks, the center's vice president, said.  Still, she praised the film's realistic  acknowledgment that treatment is a long haul, anywhere from three to seven years.  "They don't leave us recovered. They leave us with tools to go into outpatient treatment," she said.

Ms. Greenfield had initially worried that the cameras might disturb the patients, but it didn't turn out that way.

The girls are really narcissistic," she said. "It's almost like I was the least of their worries. It's really all about control and much deeper issues." Ms. Williams, now 32 and managing a photography studio in Chattanooga, Tenn., said in a telephone interview that she wasn't self-conscious about how she looked, but about eating in front of anyone, the cameras included.

When she saw the film, she said she was caught off guard by scenes she didn't remember because "when you are so entrenched in the anorexia, your brain is starved." Two months ofter she was kicked out of Renfrew Ms. Williams had serious misgivings about participating in the film. "I had battled this for so many years, and I was excited that someone was doing a piece on it," she said. "It needed to get out there." But she was also concerned about protecting her family members, who had kept her suicide attempt secret. Her family hasn't seen the film, and she doesn't know how they will react. "I decided that what was most important was what I felt I needed to do," she said. That decision was validated at Sundance, where the film made it's debut in January, when a 15-year-old confided that she was bulimic. "Hopefully this will catch a lot of people before it's too late, before they are entrenched in it," Ms. Williams said.