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In Conversation with Madeleine Sims-Fewer and Dusty Mancinelli, directors of Chubby

*Trigger warning: mentions of sexual abuse and family trauma*

2019 short film Chubby follows the sexual abuse ten-year-old Jude (Maya Harman) faces at the hands of her brother Noah (Jesse LaVercombe) and the subsequent struggles of their family members during the following Christmas holiday. It focuses on the complexity of emotions surrounding the taboos of sexual assault and the roles guilt and fear often play when a victim chooses to speak up.

Centralising the victim and her trauma, writers and directors Madeleine Sims-Fewer and Dusty Mancinelli – who won the Silver Dragon award for Best Director of Short Fiction at the Kraków Film Festival – hope to bring their own experiences of abuse to the film industry in order to give voice to those who are so often silenced. Strand sat down with them to discuss Chubby and the personal incentives and overall creative process behind the production.

I just wanted to say first of all congratulations for winning the Silver Dragon award (amongst others!). How does it feel?

Dusty: Thanks! It was really surprising, I think when you make a film that deals with really sensitive subject matter, especially one where there’s a lot of social stigma, it’s nice to know that the film resonates with its audience. It also means that more people are going to see the film which is really exciting.

Madeleine: We are all just so thrilled for Maya [Harman]. It’s her first film and for it to do well means that she’ll get the recognition she deserves and that’s so gratifying.

In a short time frame, Chubby covers so many topics and emotions which are still seen as taboo in modern society. Why is it important for you to use your platform as directors to promote conversations of domestic/sexual abuse?

Madeleine: I think filmmaking is a way to create and foster empathy. This is how we see every film we approach. The stories we tell are always quite difficult subject matters and I think Chubby is perhaps the most difficult. This can sometimes be hard for people to swallow; it’s not very palatable. But I think it is important to create empathy for subjects that people are not talking about in order to promote more openness and discussion about sexual abuse. Sexual abuse in families is still a particularly uncomfortable subject, especially with the pandemic, where we’ve really seen a rise of familial sexual abuse. People are trapped in these situations and they can’t get out of them and can’t talk about them. We can only hope that our film can reach someone that is feeling alone, and give them the courage to speak to someone about what’s happened.

Dusty: Our work comes from a very personal place as we have both experienced abuse and trauma, so it was really important for us to try and capture the relationship between the past and the present and how certain events can really trigger a survivor’s memory and bring them back to that dark moment. The structure in that sense was very important. We wanted to show the power dynamics between these two siblings and how manipulation is often used as a tactic in order to lure and trap victims of abuse.

Why was it important to centre sexual abuse in the film rather than it being an addition to a larger plotline?

Madeleine: That’s a really good question that we haven’t had before actually! When we were discussing how to tell the story it all centred around the character Jude and this one moment that defines her life. It’s this one traumatic moment that we are building towards and we wanted to create this sense of false security in the audience slowly leading to this feeling of dread as everything spirals out of control. Like Dusty said we use a non-linear timeline with the family all together at Christmas but then we also jump back to this one night with the abusive incident. It’s like a map of trauma: even when you’re safe with your family, it only takes a sound, taste, word to bring you back to the centre of that map and that traumatic experience.

Dusty: We are really seeing the rippling effect this has on the entire family. It affects relationships between the mother and the other daughter, and Jude starts to feel responsible, as though she’s destroyed her family, and ultimately this causes her to recount her admission. The feeling of guilt when there is nothing to feel guilty for is really important, and we wanted to capture that pressure.

Madeleine: There’s also this divide between the family members that know what happened and the family members that don’t. Originally, we’d shot a lot more of the family, but as we edited, we realised that the film was more about Jude’s experience and her sensory triggers. Hearing arguments and voices like Jude does was more important, so we ended up centralising the film around her.

What is the reasoning behind the title Chubby and its phallic references in the film?

Madeleine: The title came very early on actually, and we discussed a lot. It has both a light and dark connotation and ultimately that’s why we chose it. It has this cute feeling of a chubby young girl with chubby cheeks but it also has this phallic symbolism in the film, which is much darker.

Could you explain your choice to centre the film around the traditionally family-based holiday of Christmas?

Dusty: Christmas conjures warmth and positive feelings. It’s about coming together for family time. But in Chubby, you start to see the struggle between the mother and daughters as they want to sweep this dark secret under the rug and hide it from everyone else. Christmas becomes this poignant way to show this veil of happiness or false sense of security as family tries to present itself as strong and caring while hiding something quite monstrous.

Madeleine: For many victims of sexual abuse this can be quite a scary time if you haven’t come out with your story. It’s a time when you are forced to be around this secret and live with it. That was important to say as well.

There’s a focus on facial expressions in the cinematography. Why did you choose to include this so often?

Dusty: We used long lenses and shallow depth of field to create a claustrophobic feeling for the audience, one that allows you to feel present in the space with the characters. There’s a level of intimacy as though you shouldn’t be there, you shouldn’t be witnessing this. It’s very uncomfortable to see everything unfold in such a close way.

Madeleine: When we shot we allowed a lot of improvisation. So instead of setting everything up and having the slate come in and shouting action we would suggest a game or a topic of conversation for Jesse and Maya, which they would talk about until it was the right moment to start the scene.

You both work predominantly with the short film form. What are its positives and setbacks, both generally and for Chubby as a film?

Madeleine: We actually just made our first feature film which deals with a lot of the same themes of trauma and abuse, but it was such a different experience. With the short, the one thing that really stands out is the limited time while with the feature you have a lot of space to tell your story.

Dusty: The short is a great form to develop your aesthetic as a filmmaker and figure out what you want to say. The short is also where we developed and forged strong relationships with our key creatives, with whom we worked closely for our feature film. The challenge is always going to be finding the right story to be told in the right format and then the limitations of having only a few days to actually shoot it.

Madeleine: Short films like a short story work best when they are about a moment, a tone or a feeling rather than a bigger character story or a bigger plot.

Dusty: The biggest challenge with Chubby though is the subject matter. Even though the film has done really well on the festival circuit, it’s still very challenging to sell to broadcasters, who often want comedic, feel-good short films for their audiences.

You both have so much experience in different areas of the industry. Could you tell me a little bit more about the creative process behind the making of a short film?

Dusty: We combine so many locations to create that one space in the film so that it doesn’t actually exist in the real world but is unique to the story we are trying to sell. We worked closely with cinematographer Adam Crosby to create a naturalistic and visual aesthetic that feels grounded, almost like a documentary. The handheld camera in the film is designed to create a kinetic energy that fills you with anxiety and dread as the film unfolds.

Madeleine: We also used all-natural light so the production designer and our DP had to choose locations that have certain lighting and textures that are going to create the look we want to see. Also, there’s no messing up for the actors as mistakes are part of the scene.

Does the process change when the film’s concerns are more personal and sensitive?

Dusty: Our films are always going to be personal, but when the project is more sensitive open communication throughout the whole process is crucial. In films like Chubby where the subject matter is so delicate, we make sure we explain why we are doing everything to everyone on set.

Edited by Juliette Howard, Film Editor