Directing films is like professional sports

Written by Anton Damen

Pearl, Franco-Swiss Elsa Amiel’s feature film debut is an intimate drama about a young female bodybuilder. The body is the story’s point of departure. “I wanted to show the fragility behind all those bulging, tensed muscles.”

A mere day and a half is how long she can stay in Rotterdam this year. Elsa Amiel then has to race back to a Swiss festival as well as do a whole load of publicity. Her feature film debut hits French cinemas next week. Busy, yet exciting times. After working more anonymously as an assistant director for countless 35mm films (including those of Bertrand Bonnello and Matthieu Almaric) Pearl is Elsa Amiel’s first feature film. one that introduces the audience to the equally fascinating and bizarre world of female bodybuilding competitions.

“I shot my first short film Faccia d'Angelo (2007) about a boxer’s body 12 years ago. That was the first time I explored the concept of the body as a form of identity,” says Amiel. She hadn’t exhausted the phenomenon and was inspired by German photographer Martin Schoeller’s exhibition of portraits of female bodybuilders. “The portraits were really ambivalent: super feminine yet ultra-manly at the same time. That ambivalence convinced me the bodybuilding world would provide a good setting for my film.”

This meant Amiel had to get busy. For research purposes she attended her first bodybuilding competition in Zagreb. “I was introduced to an intriguing microcosm. Virgin soil to nourish my drama in which I wanted to show the fragility behind those bulging, tensed muscles."

She also encountered closed doors. The bodybuilding world isn’t fond of outsiders, explains Amiel. "Can I have a look backstage ? No. Can I speak to so-and-so? No. This is all because bodybuilding’s image is poor due to steroids and other drugs. It’s not seen as a real sport and it isn’t really a show either.”

Building trust

However, perseverance paid off. Ultimately, Amiel built up enough trust with bodybuilder Julia Föry for the latter to agree to be part of the film. Casting a professional actress “would have been a mistake”, says the filmmaker. “It takes an awful lot of pain and self-sacrifice to attain a bodybuilder’s physique. Once you have a body like that, there is no way back.”

There was a constant back and forth between Julia and the character” – Elsa Amiel

Working with an amateur actress was exciting. Amiel was touched by Föry’s vulnerability and femininity - she came to the audition with her mother. The actress recognised a great deal in the role. “During the shoot it was clear that Julia influenced the material – there was a constant back and forth between Julia and the character. She’s a happy person, but her character changes when preparing for competition and she becomes extremely serious and result oriented."

Directing films is like professional sports

Elsa Amiel’s  WhatsApp status message reads: ‘in the gym’, but she definitely didn’t catch the bodybuilding bug. Nevertheless, there are similarities between Julia’s profession and hers. “Julia talked about the loneliness of a bodybuilder. I had never given it a second thought, but a film director is all too familiar with this too. You have this burning passion, you suffer for it and sometimes it’s painful, destructive and lonely. Directing films is like professional sports.”

I want to make my own films, that’s my way of communicating. It’s in my blood.” – Elsa Amiel

The question is whether this debut has whet Amiel’s appetite or will she return to her old job, as other director’s right-hand woman? “It pays better, definitely, and it’s less stressful.” Yet she won’t hear of it. “I want to make my own films . that’s my way of communicating. It’s in my blood."

Photo in header: Still: Pearl