While at a Halloween party at Berkshire International Film Festival (BIFF) director Kelley Vickery’s house last fall—where BIFF board member Annie, decked out in her cop uniform, was on candy duty at the front door—director and producer Cynthia Wade got one of those hold-the-presses phone calls. Representatives of Dove and the Sundance Institute were on the line to tell her she’d been chosen as the director for the latest iteration of Dove’s #BeautyIs campaign. As a result of their grant, Cynthia created Selfie, a powerful new short film that invites us all to rethink long-held, media-biased ideas of beauty.
For Cynthia, Selfie is the latest in a line of socially conscious films, including the multiple-award-winning Shelter Dogs, the 2013 Oscar-nominated Mondays at Racine, and the 2008 Academy Award winner Freeheld, a heartbreaking look at a terminally ill New Jersey policewoman battling to leave her pension benefits to her same-sex partner. For her new film, Cynthia started by tapping a group of Berkshire teens and their moms, and asked them to take self-portraits of their “flaws.” The resulting gallery exhibit was an eye-opening experience for the girls, who discovered that those “flaws” are exactly what make them memorable and beautiful to others. Selfie debuted in Park City in January at the Women at Sundance Brunch, and was released online soon after. In its first month, it got more than 5 million views and sparked a conversation in the mainstream media, including on the Today show.
On February 23 at 10:30 a.m., anyone in the Berkshire area can attend a screening of Selfie and a Q&A with Cynthia at the Triplex Cinema in Great Barrington, Massachusetts. Those will be followed by a screening of Sepideh, a new documentary about an Iranian teenager who aspires to be an astronaut, and the cultural challenges she and other women face in achieving their dreams.
In the meantime, we sat down with Cynthia to dig deeper into Selfie, the idea of redefining beauty, and her filmmaking.
Fresh American: How did Selfie come about?
Cynthia Wade: It was via a collaboration between the Sundance Institute and Dove. They have partnered together to support initiatives that help direct female directors’ careers. They wanted to show a short video to kick off the partnership, and they reached out to 60 directors who had been part of the Sundance Film Festival. We wanted to explore how social media is influencing the dialogue around beauty. [We thought,] What if we made a film about the selfie?
FA: How did you choose the moms and daughters for the film?
CW: Ultimately, we decided to do it at Monument Mountain High School [in Great Barrington, MA]—an ordinary public school in an ordinary town. The Berkshires is a community that understands creative projects and is incredibly warm and open. The subjects were a self-selecting group. Girls signed up to be part of it, and they and their moms came in to do interviews. We wanted a variety of experiences, especially where this was even more of an exploration or new moment of revelation for the mother.
FA: Once you started working with these women and girls, what surprised you the most?
CW: I think what was most surprising for me was that how many of those early adolescent insecurities these women in their 30s and 40s and 50s still carry—and they hadn’t even realized it. Nearly all of the mothers were surprised that their nonverbal cues were so powerful. You can tell your daughter she’s beautiful on the inside, but then you pass a mirror and go “Aarghh!” and that’s an even more powerful example for them. The moms thought they were projecting a confident or neutral persona, but when I’d ask the daughter what their moms didn’t like about themselves, they were dead-on.
FA: You’re also a mom. Did you find any parts of filming Selfie especially challenging?
CW: A lot of my work is women-focused and about empowering women, telling stories that are untold. That said, it’s still hard for me to take a selfie. I’ve had that mirror moment with my own daughter. So I’m still endeavoring to work on it, every single day.
FA: Women have had overwhelmingly positive reactions to the film. What have men’s reactions been like?
CW: They’ve been really positive, too. A man wrote to me and said he thinks societies have unrealistic view of women. A widower said, “This has meant so much to me. I cried so hard. I can see my own daughters beginning to grapple with these issues; I don’t want them to buy into this airbrushed version of beauty.” Because their mother had died, they couldn’t have that conversation with her. Another man said he found it incredibly moving, and it made him wonder what his own young daughter’s self-image will be. I think we often believe men aren’t part of the conversation or aren’t on our side, but I think they are, more than we give them credit for.
FA: Why is social media such a powerful force in redefining beauty?
CW: With social media, the power really is in our hands in a way that it was not when I was growing up. I remember in seventh or eighth grade, saving my allowance and going to the grocery store once a month to buy a teen magazine. On that stand, there were dozens of magazines, but almost all pictured one kind of woman. She didn’t look like me. The message to me was: “You’re not acceptable” or maybe “You’re not even lovable.” I think that can be incredibly detrimental.
If you Google beautiful women, you mostly get those airbrushed images of supermodels—it’s an incredibly rarified type of beauty. But if you do that on Instagram or Facebook or search people’s blogs, it’s remarkably different. They’re women of color or full-figured, women with really straight hair or really curly hair, women of all different lifestyles. The power is really in the people’s hands for reclaiming and redefining beauty. We’re telling our own stories. I’m all about finding beauty in those everyday people and everyday stories.
FA: What about the recent celebrity backlash for retouching photos before posting on social media?
CW: Celebrities are in this crazy-cruel fishbowl. They’re under such pressure from the media, it’s impossible to know how difficult it is. Ellen Page, who will star in the fictionalized version of Freeheld, just came out. What is most striking to me in her speech is how she verbalizes the intense pressure of living in that fishbowl. Thus I don’t blame celebrities for our unhealthy obsession with perfection—they are victims of it too. It’s a cultural problem.
FA: You said in your Today show interview that as a filmmaker, you’re always looking for those “off moments.” Tell us about that.
CW: When they show up for an interview, people will say what they think you want to hear. As humans, we’re trained to fill that negative space with words. But it’s not until after a while, after that pregnant pause, when moments of playfulness, of reflection come out. It’s all those little jalapeno-peppered moments that make a film alive. We like to roll the cameras before and after interview to catch those, and allow moments of silence.
FA: Be honest. Is going to the Oscars as amazing as it looks?
CW: Going to the Oscars and going up in front of 60 million people, it’s so intense! People are watching you and talking about your dress and hair and jewelry. It’s way more fun watching it at home in your pajamas.
FA: What can you tell us about the film version of Freeheld?
CW: It’s been six years in development. Julianne Moore and Ellen Page are attached to star, and Zach Galifinakis has just signed on. They’re aiming to start filming in the summer. Ron Nyswaner, who wrote Philadelphia, wrote the screenplay. I’m a producer, and the main producers are Stacey Sher and Michael Shamberg, who did Erin Brokovich. They’re taking a real-life story and turning it into a Hollywood version that’s accessible to a mainstream audience.
FA: What’s the best film you’ve seen lately?
CW: I found 12 Years a Slave to be incredibly profound. The director let the camera linger on those moments of people not talking that I always look for. I also loved Dallas Buyers Club. I think all five of the Oscar-nominated documentaries are winners; I don’t even know how they could choose between them.
FA: Can you tell us what you’re working on now?
CW: I’m working on four projects right now. One is about , one is about gun culture, one is about a major ecological disaster in Indonesia, and one is about a woman who revolutionized the design of the violin. All will be feature length.