"Behind the probing lens," Janet Smith - September 14, 2006

Vancouver International Film Festival documentaries focus on the unflinching work of three fearless female photographers

A severe anorexic struggles to choke down a birthday cupcake while her fellow eating-disorder-clinic patients coax her on. A baby lies, screaming, exposed in the sun, while his schizophrenic grandmother sits distracted in the nearby shade. And an Indian transsexual accosts two young lovers on a Mumbai beach, threatening to show them his mutilated crotch if they don’t cough up an offering of rupees.

What links these disparate images is both their emotional impact and the startlingly intimate access the camera has to the subjects. Thanks to three of the most probing, brutally honest female photographers working in the world today, these images are the focus of a trio of fascinating documentaries debuting at the Vancouver International Film Festival over the next few weeks. Thin, a vérité exploration of women in an eating-disorder treatment centre, is by celebrated American photographer Lauren Greenfield. The other two are movies that follow artists as they shoot: Tierney Gearon: The Mother Project focuses on Gearon’s work documenting her mentally ill mother and three young children in the U.S., while Between the Lines: India’s Third Gender tails Delhi photographer Anita Khemka as she cracks the secretive, feared subculture of the outcast hijras: transsexuals who work as prostitutes or beggars. All three women have a unique ability to win the trust of their subjects and to bare inner anguish—sometimes even their own—in the process.

As a photographer, Greenfield has made her name gaining access to her subjects’ most private torments. Her widely distributed photo book Girl Culture captured children, teens, and young women hiding out in their bedrooms at home, pushing themselves into clothes in mall change rooms, and measuring their fat at weight-loss camps. Included in the collection were portraits of girls with severe eating disorders, which not only introduced Greenfield to Florida’s Renfrew Center but also made her want to explore this most extreme obsession with body image on a deeper level. HBO encouraged her to make a film on the subject, but nothing could prepare her for the work it would take to build the trust needed to shoot Thin, her first documentary.

Eating disorders are, by nature, secretive rituals, and Greenfield would be shooting people while they were riding the ups and downs of a debilitating mental illness. “This population is difficult to get to know and gain the trust of,” Greenfield explains from her L.A. studio, where she’s currently juggling photo projects along with caring for a four-month-old baby. “These people have a lot of issues about image, and as a person who’s in a profession of being an image maker, that makes it hard. And at the same time, these are people in the middle of a life-and-death experience. It made it so that at points, it seemed like maybe this film couldn’t even be made.”

But Greenfield persevered, for two years before she could even start shooting, to convince the staff at the centre that it could be done, and to secure the permission of the four women around whom she would base her first film. “Once everyone was onboard, we just started, and it was really a day-by-day process of earning your access. I worked with a really small crew, and I made sure it was an all-female crew, and they sort of had to make their own relationships,” she says. “With the film, my relationship with my subjects was so much more intense [than with photos]. It was because I was with this really small group of people over a long period of time; I spent 10 weeks there shooting over a six-month period, so I lived there in a pretty extensive way.”

The result is a film that captures the disease in all its ugliness and complexity: “blind weigh-ins” where the girls are forbidden from looking at the numbers on the scales; the unbearable discomfort of mealtime in the cafeteria, where patients pick awkwardly at lettuce they’re required to eat; and Big Brother–style room searches for stashed food and other contraband. In what may be Thin’s most unprecedented footage, girls who fall off their treatment actually allow Greenfield to shoot them purging.

Thin dispels myths about the disease as a diet gone bad. Even Greenfield went through a learning process. “I think I really didn’t understand what it was about and how it functioned. I kind of came there out of Girl Culture and out of our obsession with the body and body image, and when I was at the centre, I saw it was a serious mental illness, an addiction, and a coping mechanism like drugs or alcohol, something girls used to numb their pain and not have to deal with issues.” Greenfield pauses and adds: “I feel like I kind of came at it with more of a superficial take on it and discovered the heart of darkness.”

She was deeply affected by the frustrating tenacity of the disease, and she experienced the emotional toll of watching her subjects in anguish. All were allowed to turn off the camera at any time, and some did, she says, but most wanted to show the real hell of the disease in the hope that it might help others.

Asked if she ever felt like putting down the camera and trying to stop one of the women from hurting herself, Greenfield compares her job to that of a war photographer shooting a famine victim who’s dying in a relief camp. “I feel like I’m doing my job as a documentarian, although it doesn’t feel like a job—it’s a very intense relationship I have with the women. But my purpose was not to be a social worker. There’s nowhere these girls could be that would have more trained psychological and medical help than they did at the Renfrew Center.”

What Greenfield does hope to do is promote discussion with her film. In aid of that, she’s launching a Web site ( in mid-October and is publishing a photo-and-interview book called Thin that looks at the lives of her four subjects and many others in more detail. She hopes to have copies of it with her when she travels to speak at the VIFF (during screenings October 10 and 11); she’s also organizing a touring photo exhibit that starts at the Women’s Museum in Dallas this February. But as much as photos are a big part of her Thin project, Greenfield says she felt film was the only way to truly explore the issue of eating disorders. “A place like Renfrew could be very limiting to photos, and it’s such a psychological illness that you really need a voice. And that’s a really good metaphor for the illness: the women who have the disorder are learning to find their voice and not just expressing themselves through their body image.”