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[TIFF 2020] The illustrated woman: Alex Anna discusses her short film Scars

Despite its modest ten-minute runtime, Montreal-based director Alex Anna’s short film Scars was one of the most impactful watches of this year’s TIFF.

Combining live action and animation, Scars thoughtfully explores the director’s personal experiences with mental health struggles and self-harm.

Alex joined Kyle Milner for a conversation about the aims and creative process behind her latest film, as well as a look ahead to future projects.

Kyle: Although Scars is about the broader topics of mental health and self-harm, it was clear that it was expressing your own personal experiences with the subject rather than a universal experience. Did you always intend for it to be a more personal story rather than a broader conversation?

Alex: Yes, it was really important for me to say that it’s my experience, not everybody’s experience. There’s not just one story of self-harming. It can’t be universal, because everyone’s different, of course; we experience it in different ways. So that’s why it was so important that it was around just the character of me in this documentary. And then, through words and poetry, maybe people can relate to it; but they don’t have to. They can have experienced something different, and it’s absolutely fine.

Kyle: As you say in the documentary, people often don’t feel comfortable speaking about mental health and self-harm with even their closest friends and loved ones. It’s something that so many people will deal with themselves, or at least have somebody in their lives who does, even if they’re doing that silently.

Alex: It’s really a lot of people, it’s quite surprising all the time. And since the movie has been out, a lot of people have written to me to say they watched the film, and they went through it as well. They’re people who I wouldn’t have even thought about in that way, and it’s quite surprising to see how many people actually struggle with it or have struggled with it.

Kyle: That’s so great that people have reached out in that way. I suppose that’s one of the most ideal results of creating a piece of art – that people not only connect with it, but they connect with you to say it struck a chord with them, and that it perhaps made them feel more comfortable talking about it with others.

Alex: Yes, definitely. That’s absolutely the whole point, opening the dialogue and hopefully making people feel better.

Kyle: The animation was really, really beautiful. It was subtle and didn’t distract from the live action elements or your voiceover. In terms of that synthesis of animation and live action, was that idea present from the beginning of production?

Alex: It was really the idea from the beginning. I had this vision of animation, those black ink drops running through the skin, for a long time. They create another layer of meaning. I thought it was really a perfect fit for this project, because as you said, the voice is really violent. It’s really raw, and it’s quite a lot to take in. The animation brings a lot of poetry and softness to it.

Kyle: Something I found quite striking was the emphasis on close-ups of the body as some sort of canvas; a canvas that tells the story of your life. To see the body in a way we usually don’t pay attention to. And then to have the shot of yourself, the human being, looking directly into the camera, I thought that was really quite powerful.

Alex: Thank you. Yeah, that was the whole point. Also to have a reminder that this is a body that you can judge, you can look and say “oh, that person is crazy”, or “it wouldn’t happen to me”. But if you see my face, you’ll know that I’m just like anybody, any girl that you cross in the street.

Kyle: That’s so true. As somebody who does struggle with mental illness, and has so many people in my life who also struggle, it’s great to find a documentary or short film like this that you might be able to share with somebody. It’s not always easy to open up about the subjects, but if they’re exposed to something that might open up something in them, they might start to feel a little more comfortable discussing it.

Alex: I’m really glad to hear that, because that’s really the aim of it; opening that dialogue. And I use it myself with my own family. Sometimes it’s hard to bring up those subjects; it’s hard for people who don’t struggle with mental health issues, and even people who do but don’t have the words to express it. It’s good to have these tools.

Kyle: Absolutely. So what kind of projects are you working on at the moment?

Alex: Even though everything is a bit weird at the moment, I’m trying to develop fiction about transgender identity, and I’m hoping to do a documentary on women’s sexual health. These other voices that are not given enough power or enough representation. I hope I can give them this voice.

Kyle: That’s something that I’ve found really, really great about TIFF in particular. This was my first year actually covering any kind of big film festival, and being from New Zealand, I’m so far away from all these countries that have had films premiere at TIFF. I know I have the internet, so I am absolutely capable of learning about these subjects and listening to these voices. But to actually experience them straight from those people in one place; it’s fantastic that there are these platforms for stories like this.

Alex: Yes, it is. I guess the good thing that we can take out of this very weird year is that TIFF, amongst other festivals, is online. So it allowed us to watch the movies from anywhere in the world, which is a very, very nice thing to do. And we don’t have to go to Toronto. Of course, we miss doing the screenings in public, but we get the movies at home!

Kyle: I’m thankful that I was actually able to take part this time. Thank you for creating such a thought-provoking film that really struck a chord with me, and will no doubt do the same with lots of people in my life. I’m really looking forward to seeing what you do next.

Alex: Thank you very much. I’m really glad that it’s had such an impact on you, and thanks for your interest!

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