Interview with Scars Director Alex Anna

Alex Anna’s short film Scars is a brave story of Alex’s battle with mental health and self-harm. A beautiful short which with the genres of animation and documentary are both intertwined, this eye-opening film helps to bring awareness to those who have been suffering with mental health. It received its world premiere at the 2020 Toronto International Film Festival. We had the absolute pleasure of speaking with Alex about her film and the importance of it.

Can you expand on what first gave you the push to create a film based on your own experience with self-harm and mental health?

For me making films is always about giving a voice to silenced subjects, fighting for a cause. It took me some years after the beginning of my recovery to realize the extent of the silence around self-harm: everybody could see my scars, but nobody would ask me about them. That’s when I decided I wanted to explore this complex and taboo topic.

What made you think of combining animation and live-action shots of your own scars? 

It came very naturally: I feel like it’s an idea I’ve always had in the back of my mind, maybe because I can see my scars every day and it just triggered my imagination… I remember that in high school already I used to draw lines and words on them. This “canvas” is a part of me.

This film may be a visual poetic interpretation of your own journey with self-harm and mental health, but would you please share with us in more detail on what this experience was like as you grew up and up to now, and if there is anything else that you’d like to share that didn’t come through in the film? 

Of course we’ve had to cut a lot out of the film in order to keep it short, but (hopefully) impactful. The part that I feel like could be important to talk about more is the stigma surrounding mental health and self-harm. Depression is already a hard pass to go through, by essence, and you have to add on top of that the shaming : when people know you’ve been to a psychiatric hospital, or you struggle with self-harming, they’re going to label you as “crazy”, “a freak”. I also remember how the very few people that accidentally caught a sight of my wounds would react : by being upset, telling me I’m a liar, acting as if I should be punished for this nonsense. This stayed with me for a very long time until I realised no one should be shamed for their bad health, and even less for trying to survive.

What was production like? This is a very heavy topic, and must have raised a lot of poignant conversations within your own crew. Are there any such conversations or a particular point in the production process that stood out to you?

Because of the sensitivity of the topic, the project remained secret until its first festival selection (TIFF) was announced. I really needed that safe space to stay away from pressure or unwanted comments, and I really appreciate that the whole crew stayed discrete the whole time. The main collaborators of this film are some of my closest friends : of course because I know how talented they are and wanted to work with them, but also because I knew I needed a special connection and sensitivity to work on this special film. For most of them, we’d never talked about my self harming before. I think the biggest moment of tense was when, after I gave all the private sound recordings (that I had done on my own, not knowing yet someone else would listen to them) to my editor, we had our first post-“material listening” meeting. All of a sudden I felt like she knew all my secrets. And for her listening to all of that has been a lot to take in. But we had a beautiful discussion about it, filled with kindness and compassion. 

What was the mood like on set, and what were the hopes of the production team for this film throughout filming? As in, what did you, and they, hope such a film would inspire in its’ audience? 

The shooting went really fine – we were all prepared, we knew the shots we wanted, and I think we focused a lot on the technique to sort of distance ourselves from what we were actually shooting. I think every person that accepted to work on this film did it because they also believed it was an important topic to bring to light. Some people from the team have struggled with a form of self-harming, depression or anxiety themselves, so the subject mattered to them as well. I think I speak for all of us by saying we hope the film will have a positive impact on people, offering them words and tools to express their feelings and their own experiences around mental health and self harm.

There is a lot of vulnerability at play in making such a film and basing it on your own life. What were some ways you made yourself comfortable during filming, especially the more intimate scenes?

I have been working with artistic nudity as a photographer and a model since I was 18, therefore it’s a process I am quite used to. On set we would make jokes about it and it quickly became very natural.

I think nudity in Arts has a special power : it takes us back to our core, to what and who we are without any disguise, and it is also an infinite source of beauty we hide all too often.

For this project I also “stripped off my mind”. This was definitely the scariest part, as I felt ridiculous and not interesting at first, but the editor, the producer and the director of photography worked closely with me to reassure me.

Even now, with the finished product ready for audiences all over the world, do you feel any sense of trepidation or regret about showcasing your vulnerabilities to the world? Not simply your physical scars, but some of the names and stories behind them.

No, I honestly feel empowered by this film, more than ever. People reaching out to me to tell me how the film has positively affected them is for me the confirmation that I did the right thing.

You based this film on your own mental health journey, but everyone’s is different. Did you do any research into how self-harm differs from person to person, and its history of being used as a thought-provoking tool in filmmaking? If so, would you please expand on both or either.

The idea of this film in its “self-documentary” form took a long time to come up with and this is precisely the reason why : for many years I thought I’d make a fictional character to talk about it, but the more I worked on that, the more I felt like a fictional character could too easily convey the stereotypes I was trying to avoid. A fictional character somehow has this pressure of “representing everyone” (here, everyone that self-harms). Of course I knew from talking and researching how this experience can be different for everyone. That’s why I thought taking “myself” as the main character, in a documentary form, would make more sense : it makes it very clear that it’s only my very own experience, while allowing anyone who feels like they relate to it to do so, and it also shows that self harming doesn’t happen just in fictions – I am that person you could cross by in the streets and never think they’d self-harm. This is how we reach a more universal aspect.

The world as it is now, there needs to be more a direct approach to opening up conversations about mental health, especially for young children and teens whose lives are being majorly upended due to current circumstances. What do you hope this film adds to the conversation?

I totally agree and I hope this film can add a better understanding of what self harming can feel like, for people who don’t struggle with it, as well as conveying the importance of reaching out, daring to ask about someone’s state of mind – always, of course, with respect for the person’s will to speak about it or not.

Do you think this film will be shown in schools and whether it can be used by teachers and guardians of children who may be struggling, to show them how to best make sense of what they’re feeling?

I think and hope it can be used as a tool to open the conversation and offer other options to cope with anxiety and depression. But due to the nudity and more importantly to the sensitive subject, I think it’d be very important to make good use of trigger warnings when showing it, especially with teenagers that stand in an age of great vulnerability.

Are there any future projects on the horizon that we can look forward to?

I can’t reveal too much yet but I am working on a project about gender identity, and another one about women’s sexual health.

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