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At long last, here’s the first public sneak peek of The Illusionists. For versions with English, Spanish, French or Italian subtitles, click here.

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Such Great Heights

“After climbing a great hill, one only finds that there are many more hills to climb.”

– Nelson Mandela

The life of an indie filmmaker is very similar to that of a marathon runner: you have to befriend pain and sacrifice, learn to withstand humiliation, and build up resilience. Low moments are plentiful. The highs, albeit often fleeting, can be sublime and intoxicating. You live for those highs.

In the six years of work on my feature-length documentary The Illusionists, I can count the highs on one hand:

1) The moment I received an email from Kickstarter, confirming that my crowdfunding campaign had successfully reached its goal.

2) Picking up the September 2011 issue of Vogue Italia to find a full-page article about my film… which didn’t in any way censor my message, centered on the toxic effects of media on the self-esteem of women, men and children around the world.

3) The first week of filming in London, where I met and interviewed three extraordinary women: psychotherapist Susie Orbach (author of Fat Is a Feminist Issue and Bodies), member of Parliament Jo Swinson, and film theorist Laura Mulvey (who coined the term “the male gaze”). The film was finally happening.

4) The premiere of the 14-minute sneak preview of the film at the 2013 Athena Film Festival in New York City. To my astonishment, the audience reacted strongly throughout the screening: at times chuckling, laughing, or loudly gasping. I was thrilled to experience such enthusiasm, warmth, and support.

5) November 8th 2013: the day I burned the first two DVD masters of The Illusionists in order to send them to one of my favorite film festivals in the world. At the FedEx counter, I was so moved that I almost burst into tears.

The Illusionists | Elena Rossini

Above: a self-portrait to commemorate the occasion. The completion of the film meant that I could regain a bit of freedom: I had spent the previous 11 months glued to my office chair, editing 10-12 hours a day, six days a week. I felt like I had just been released from prison. The start of a new life.


Looking back at that photo now, five months later, is bittersweet. Because what has followed is a scenario I did not imagine.

I knew that once you complete a film, you’re only 50% done (as opposed to 90%). Applying to festivals and the question of distribution take up a lot of time and effort. Still, I could not anticipate just how anticlimactic the future would be.


As I waited for answers from film festivals, I had a long conference call with an experienced film producer. I was seeking advice regarding distribution strategies. Basically, the producer told me that my film “was a gem” but no good festival would accept it, because I didn’t have the right connections. I needed a well-known producer, production company and/or grants from prominent foundations. Otherwise, The Illusionists had no chances of getting into any reputable festivals.

Most shocking of all: according to this producer, the fact I did it all on my own – producing, writing, directing, cinematography and editing – was not an asset but a liability. It showed that “I could not work with people.” Never mind the long list of collaborators that had been helping out. According to her, festivals disliked seeing just one name attached to a project.

Meanwhile, the friends and colleagues who saw the film seemed to have only one criticism: the voice-over narration (done by a former BBC announcer) seemed the weak point in the film, as it sounded a little too didactic. Could I change that? Well, yes, that had been at the top of my to do list for months. Even on festival applications, I had written that the voice-over was only temporary. I wanted to get a male celebrity to narrate the film.

And sure enough, rejection letters from prestigious American film festivals have started rolling in. At the same time, I have been getting extremely positive feedback from people working in TV, complementing me on the film’s content and style… which is fantastic, but without film festivals or distributors, the impact the film may have is limited.

That’s the great catch-22 of this project: to get a wide distribution deal, you need to be screening at a prestigious festival. To get into a good festival, it helps to have a celebrity narrator. To have a celebrity narrator, you can’t be a total “nobody” – you need at the very least to have a well-known producer attached to the project. And for a well-known producer to be interested in being involved, well, you need something that truly makes your movie stand out. Like a celebrity narrator. See the conundrum?

It Only Takes One Person


When considering this difficult reality, a persistent thought kept emerging. Actually, two thoughts:

1) It only takes one person to believe in this film to turn it all around

My passion for the project stems from its potential to incite activism: I strongly believe that The Illusionists can ignite important conversations about consumer culture, mass media, and the epidemic of body image dissatisfaction around the world.

It only took one person to make (95% of) this film. It’s very much a David vs. Goliath tale of overcoming obstacles and incredible odds by being persistent.

It only takes one person to believe in The Illusionists for the fate of the film to change. It could be a producer. An actress. A writer. An activist with the right connections. It could be you.

Which leads me to my second thought:

2) I’m putting things in the hands of the Twitterverse

Twitter has influenced the fate of The Illusionists since day one. It helped me connect with fellow activists, with interview subjects, with people interested in discussing body image and mass media messages. Twitter helped spread the word about the film’s crowdfunding campaign and my search for collaborators during pre-production. Twitter put me on the radar of bloggers and journalists who wrote about the project, helping me reach a bigger audience. So, I strongly believe that Twitter could work its magic with distribution as well.

It only takes one person: a Lena, a Stephen, a Michael, an Alex, a Geena, …

These are just some of the people whose involvement could change the fate of The Illusionists:

  • actress/writer/director Lena Dunham (@LenaDunham) would be the ideal executive producer for this project
  • actor/author/activist Stephen Fry (@StephenFry) could do an outstanding job narrating the film
  • filmmakers Michael Moore (@mmflint) and Alex Gibney (@AlexGibneyFilm) could be amazing exec producers and mentors, given the similarities in the style/topic of The Illusionists and their body of work
  • actress/producer/activist Geena Davis (@GDIGM) has been instrumental in raising awareness about the need for more women directors…
  • [insert] name of fabulous person I haven’t thought of

The Illusionists is very much a “square peg through a round hole” sort of project. It’s a bit of a misfit and a rebel, but its intentions are pure and noble: to jumpstart a discussion about corporate hypocrisy, toxic media messages and how they’re affecting our self-esteem. After watching it, I promise you won’t see media and advertising the same way again.

If you want to help, you can share the following messages via Twitter, throughout the week.

Simply click on the Twitter buttons below:

Monday April 14th:
Geena Davis

.@GDIGM you’d be the ideal ambassador for the documentary @illusionists: #adoptTheIllusionists

Update: on Monday night Geena Davis sent us this amazing response:

Thank you for the 200+ tweets that made it possible!!!

Tuesday April 15th:
Stephen Fry

.@StephenFry you’d be the perfect narrator for the documentary @illusionists #adoptTheIllusionists

Update: on Tuesday at noon we got this response from Stephen Fry!!! (Reading the comments is an extra bonus, because they are INCREDIBLY supportive of this project). 500 tweets and counting…

Wednesday April 16th:
Lena Dunham

.@LenaDunham You’d be the ideal exec producer for the documentary @illusionists: #adoptTheIllusionists

Thursday April 17th:
Michael Moore & Alex Gibney

.@mmflint you’d be the ideal exec producer for the documentary @illusionists: #adoptTheIllusionists

.@AlexGibneyFilm you’d be the ideal exec producer for the documentary @illusionists: #adoptTheIllusionists

Update (Saturday April 19th): Alex Gibney sent this response, after a tweet by the amazing Marian Evans:

Friday April 18th:
your input!

There are certainly many other fabulous film people that I haven’t thought of. This is your chance to give your input! Or you could simply retweet messages from earlier this week.
Help kickstart a body image revolution: #adoptTheIllusionists

Update (Friday April 18th): Two popular choices that have appeared in Twitter comments are filmmaker Morgan Spurlock and actress/producer/director Ashley Judd.

Here are ready-made messages targeting them:

.@MorganSpurlock you’d be the ideal mentor for the documentary @illusionists: #adoptTheIllusionists

.@AshleyJudd you’d be a great ambassador for the documentary @illusionists: #adoptTheIllusionists

It only takes one person. That person could be you.

Ready. Set. Go.

– Elena

P.S.: Special thanks to Chris Guillebeau, Jonathan Fields and Erik Proulx for inspiring me to write this post.