"Documentary specials take a hard look at tough subjects"
Florangela Davila - November 14, 2006
Two things most of us would rather keep private: our sex lives and our thoughts about our own bodies.
But oh how we're curious. And the subjects, when handled as deftly as "Frontline" and HBO do in a pair of documentaries tonight, make for fascinating TV.
A warning, though: both "Thin" and "A Hidden Life" will absorb you — but also leave you feeling deflated.
"Thin," the HBO documentary, takes you into a residential treatment center for anorexia nervosa. It's an unflinching look at how women — and girls — starve their bodies, failing to see their own beauty. By the film's end you question whether anyone in the grasp of anorexia can ever actually wrest herself free.
Food as enemy
Equally provocative is "Thin," a harrowing, at times disturbingly graphic story about three women and a 15-year-old girl seeking treatment for eating disorders.
Director Lauren Greenfield previously shot photographs at Florida's Renfrew Center for her book, "Girl Culture." Now she's returned to the center as a filmmaker. The access and the trust she establishes with her subjects is remarkable. There's no narration here; rather, it's the ebb and flow of life at the center that is documented. Yawning young women being weighed early morning. A nurse checking for marks on their bodies, peeling back hospital gowns, finding only bones.
Bonding and bitching out on the "smoke porch." Group "sharing" sessions. Eating cafeteria food with pained looks. And late in the film, purging.
Alisa, 30, is asked to sketch her silhouette. A therapist then traces Alisa's actual body onto the same piece of butcher paper. There's an obvious difference, in plain black marker. But Alisa sees only problem areas and starts labeling: Saddle bags. Love handles. Help me.
What woman hasn't questioned her own body image? For that matter, what man hasn't wished for a little more here and less there? We are obsessed with physical looks — our own, if cosmetic surgery or the sales of diet and exercise books are any indication. The likes of Nicole Richie also fuel the public discussion: naturally thin or simply starving herself?
This alone pulls us to this film. And once we're introduced to each of the four protagonists — in particular Alisa, the divorced mother of two — we've become invested, compelled if not curious to keep watching to find out what happens next.
Eating disorders, we learn at the beginning of the documentary, affect 5 million people in the U.S. As many as one in seven women with anorexia will die from the illness.
But we're never told how many people recover — or if they can. The cost of such treatment is only hinted at; 'Thin" doesn't tell us how much Renfrew charges. And don't come to the film looking for a scientific explanation about the illness: Is it mental or biological?
Instead, what "Thin" accomplishes is showing us the enormous emotional and physical hurdles faced by someone living with an eating disorder. (The documentary is part of a broader campaign, including a resource guide about recognizing and dealing with eating disorders. The guide can be downloaded at www.thindocumentary.com.)
We start out hoping the patients, some as little as 86 pounds, will find their way. But how they end up after they leave Renfrew — sent home sometimes because their insurance runs out — is depressing.