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Documentary Overview

  • genre: documentary
  • running time: 84 minutes (director’s cut – distributed by VHX); 51 minutes (educational cut – distributed by the Media Education Foundation)
  • Writer/Director/Producer: Elena Rossini
  • Narrator: Peter Coyote
  • Original Music by: STAL
  • format: HD (1080p)
  • languages: English, French, Japanese, Italian (with English subtitles)
  • subtitles: English, Spanish, French & Italian (84 min director’s cut); English (educational version)
  • filming locations: United Kingdom, United States, France, Italy, the Netherlands, Lebanon, India, Japan

Short Synopsis

Sex sells. What sells even more? Insecurity. Multi-billion dollar industries saturate our lives with images of unattainable beauty, exporting body hatred from New York to Beirut to Tokyo. Their target? Women, and increasingly men and children. The Illusionists turns the mirror on media, exposing the absurd, sometimes humorous, and shocking images that seek to enslave us.

Long Synopsis

From Harvard University to the halls of the Louvre Museum, passing by a cosmetic surgeon’s office in Beirut, to the heart of Tokyo’s Electric Town, The Illusionists explores how the body has become “the finest consumer object.”

The preoccupation over physical beauty is as old as time; what is different today is the central role that the pursuit of the perfect body has taken: it has become our new religion. A beautiful body is seen today as key for personal and also, more importantly, economic success for both women and men. The fast-paced culture brought on by globalization and the new economy has created a new paradigm of self-making: individuals are increasingly pushed to re-invent themselves; the key anxiety of the 21st century is the fear of disposability.

From New York to Tokyo, relentless propaganda reminds us that we have only one body – and that we have to enhance it. Through advertising and mass media, multibillion-dollar industries (most notably cosmetics, fashion, dieting, and cosmetic surgery) saturate our lives with images of idealized, unattainable beauty, of an “Official Body” that does not really exist in nature and that can be obtained only through cosmetic surgery… or digital retouching. Flawless beauty is on display everywhere: in street ads, newspapers, magazines, TV, films… as well as in video games and pornography. The very quantity of these images makes it impossible for people not to be affected by them. Indeed, the ideal consumer is someone who is anxious, depressed and constantly dissatisfied: academic studies from the most respected institutions show that sad people are bigger spenders.

The beauty industry is constantly expanding and has now found two new targets: men and children. A revolution is under way in the perception that these two groups have of themselves.

The Illusionists explores these themes through the testimonies of sociologists, politicians, magazine editors, scientists, artists and activists in North America, Europe, the Middle East and Asia.

Director’s Statement

Elena Rossini - Director's Statement - THE ILLUSIONISTS

I never imagined that one quote could change the course of my life. Back in March 2008, I came across an essay that started with these provocative words by Ambrose Bierce: “To men a man is but a mind. Who cares what face he carries or what he wears? But a woman’s body is the woman.”

The truth – and the profound injustice – of this sentence was on prominent display all around me. And it hit close to home: was that the reason why every woman in my life was insecure about her body? I was reminded of this beauty imperatives hundreds of times a day, whenever I saw a billboard ad, opened a magazine, or when I turned on TV. Everywhere, there seemed to be an obsession over female youth and beauty, and about a very specific body type that excluded 99% of the female population. And so I started asking myself: who profits from this? That’s how THE ILLUSIONISTS was born. I began researching the topic, wrote a screenplay, and when TV networks turned down my pitch – fearful of reprisals from advertisers – I raised money for production online, through a crowdfunding campaign.

The title of the film comes from a line uttered by Howard Beale in the iconic film Network (1976), exhorting the audience of his TV show to realize that the media “deal in illusions” and lamenting that people are increasingly unable to tell what’s truly real, as they try to imitate the lives and images they see on TV. They, too, in turn become illusionists.

What differentiates this documentary from other films that discuss beauty and media representation is that its focus is truly global: I filmed interviews in eight countries across four continents, from the United States, to Europe, Lebanon, India and Japan. And, importantly, THE ILLUSIONISTS talks about how this epidemic of body dissatisfaction is affecting not only women, but also men and children. Everyone is a target.

My ultimate goal is that the release of the film will spark public discussions about the link between media messages and negative body image. I want to empower the audience with new knowledge and to give people a platform to “speak truth to media.”

Media: Stills

Film still: Paris, France

Film still: Milan, Italy

Film still: Tokyo, Japan

Film still: Milan, Italy

Promo card

Promo card

Poster: The Illusionists (director’s cut)

Poster: The Illusionists (educational version)

Headshot: director Elena Rossini
photo by: Sara Melotti

Media: Videos

For international versions (with subtitles in English, Spanish, French or Italian), click here.

Crew Bios

Elena Rossini (writer, producer, DP, editor & director)

Elena Rossini is an Italian filmmaker, photographer and social entrepreneur. Her mission: to create media that empowers women and girls. In addition to her body image documentary The Illusionists, Rossini is also the creator of the multimedia platform No Country for Young Women, which showcases more than 120 interviews with inspiring women representing five continents, seven decades and over two dozen professions. Rossini often speaks at international conferences and is a 2014 alumna of the Young Leaders Program by the Council for the United States and Italy.

website | twitter

Press & TV Coverage

The Illusionists has been featured in:

For the full list of links to articles, blog posts and TV coverage of The Illusionists, check out this page: Press & TV.


“There are moments in history when one film or novel or song commands our collective attention and points to the undoing happening before our very eyes. The Illusionists is such a film. Our children will live longer than any generation in history, yet live in an era of age-compression where even 8 year olds are sexualized. Our world is globally connected in new ways, yet a narrow standardization of beauty – rather than a celebration of beauty’s many varieties – is prized. Technology allows us to share our lives, yet we use tools to airbrush images to an unattainable ideal. Too bad that in this state of things we no longer have Dr. Seuss to illustrate the big lesson for us. Thank heavens we have Elena Rossini to film it.”

Kat Gordon | Founder, The 3% Conference

“With unsettling visuals, damning examples, and interviews with the leading experts, The Illusionists reveals the capitalist impulses behind the intimidatingly high standard of beauty in the West and shows how corporations are bringing men, children, and the entire world into its destructive fold. If you’re going to watch one documentary on the beauty industrial complex, this should be it.”

Lisa Wade, PhD | Associate Professor of Sociology at Occidental College

“The Illusionists is an important reminder that Western ideals of beauty are increasingly permeating cultures all over the globe, disturbingly making damaging standards of thinness the norm. Rossini’s film does much to combat this cross-generation epidemic of body dissatisfaction and should be required viewing for women of all ages.”

Julie Zeilinger | Founded & Editor of The FBomb | Author of A Little F’d Up: Why Feminism is Not a Dirty Word

“As modern-day life gets increasingly connected to media and technology, it is vital that we understand how corporate marketers shape images of whom girls and women are and how they need to look. These practices make us need to buy, buy and buy more and more and endlessly try to look right but never quite succeed — because the images we see are increasingly extreme and unattainable. This film will help women (and men) gain some of the resilience they need to resist the most extreme media messages marketed to them that promote consumer culture and undermine healthy gender development and relationships in these times.”

Diane E. Levin, Ph.D. | Professor of Education at Wheelock College | Co-Author of So Sexy So Soon

“This important film expands the critique of unattainable beauty to a global scale — revealing how Western values continue to dominate media and consumer landscapes through neocolonial flows of corporate capital that marginalize entire populations. But perhaps The Illusionists’ best trick will be getting students to wrestle with how ideology functions at the most intimate of levels by preying on their own insecurities.”

Christopher Mark Boulton, PhD | Assistant Professor of Communication at the University of Tampa

Tour Testimonials

“I’ve seen The Illusionists several times now and each day since, no matter where I am or what I’m doing, some part of the film will resonate with me.  Whether it is a quote (“We’re losing bodies like we are losing languages”), a statistic (the amount of time we are currently exposed to media and will be exposed to media in the future), or just the simple understanding of the impact that mass media has on every single one of us, no matter how secure we are, I no longer look at advertisements the same.  I have a better personal understanding of beauty versus glamour from this film and a better understanding of myself too.  To have witnessed the impact that this film had on everyone who saw it was incredibly moving for me.  I truly believe that I am a better social work practitioner as a result of the messages in The Illusionists.”

Rachael Abrams, Parent Outreach Specialist for Jewish Community Services

“The film was very powerful for me to experience personally as well as to hear the conversations at Towson afterwards. Body image, health, consumer culture and societal and gendered expectations of beauty are all topics that are part of our daily lives. For young college students as well as older adults dealing with aging, I think the film touched a nerve or two with everyone in the audience. I think the impact was to get us thinking about our part in this conversation and what we can be doing for ourselves and our physical and mental well-being.”

Mahnoor Ahmed, Associate Director, Student Diversity and Development at Towson University

“The film took seven years to complete – seven years – and it shows. Elena produced an inspiring and touching film and introduced topics that I had never before thought about. I’ve seen the film five-times and would see it 500 more.”

Ilana Posner,

What’s Next


The Realists

The sequel of The Illusionists is currently in production.

The Realists will focus on the dark side of Big Tech and digital advertising.