After building an established career as a writer, curator, festival director and arts programmer, Shana Myara has now turned to feature filmmaking with her documentary Well Rounded, which screened at the 2021 edition of BFI Flare. Focusing on the intersection between race, fatness and queerness, Well Rounded combines the personal experiences of four fat activists with insight from medical and historical experts, resulting in an empowering, accessible look at weight stigma and fat positivity. We spoke to Shana about her intentions with the film and how it contributed to her own journey towards body liberation.
The name of the film, Well Rounded, incorporates a lot. How did you land on it?
SM: I think we lack a really great vernacular to talk about our bodies, as large bodies. The word fat – you can only use it so many times, and it comes with so many connotations. If you say the word fat, people instantly want to correct you, or they look for a euphemism. I wanted the title to have that feeling of defiance, and that this is going to be a positive, affirming experience.
The interviewees are obviously the core of the film. How did you go about finding them?
SM: I was looking for people who live their lives publicly and who have the discussion about being fat simultaneously – and so their activism is kind of necessary because they’re public people. The film also intersects with talking about how racialized bodies have often been deemed wrong, and how fatness intersects with racism in our society, so I was looking for racialized people who bring all of that analysis together.
You’ve said that you “wanted to interview other fat folks who linked their body acceptance to their cultures and ethnicity”. What does that mean to you?
SM: I wanted to explore how feeling ashamed of my body has always been interconnected with feeling like people are mocking my family’s Moroccan roots, or our sensibility. Inside our family, we all kind of look the same, and we all talk about our bodies being big – but with the sense of celebration rather than failure. So I wanted to talk with other folks who are immigrants or racialized and ask them those questions – how did your family talk about your bodies? Were you the outlier? Were you the only fat kid in your family or did you all share this body type? I wanted to tease that stuff out.
One of the most interesting parts of Well Rounded is where Joanne Tsung talks about ‘coming out’ as fat. Could you talk about your experience with that?
SM: Well, this film is really my big ‘fat coming out’! A lot of the people in my life are kind of surprised that this is the film that I’ve released, because I don’t talk about being fat with people who I perceive to be anti-fat. I’m kind of a loudmouth in that I can challenge a lot of things in the moment, but I’ve never been good at challenging anti-fat comments directed at me, because they do feel so charged, and they do feel like they carry the weight – pun intended – of society. So this project has been really personal and rewarding for me. To do some of this work directly with these killer activists, to have these conversations with them and leapfrog any of the convincing you have to do with people who haven’t done the work…it feels like a bold unveiling to me. It has been the best therapy ever, actually.
Why did you want to include so much about the cast’s families in the film?
SM: Because to me, that was the shorthand about talking about their lives as immigrant families, as racialized families. As Dr Jenny Ellison says, the most important messaging we receive in our lives, that dictates how we will feel about our bodies, is through our families. Families first, then media, then government messaging.
Some of us in the film were really lucky enough to have accepting families and some of us weren’t. There’s no monolith for what it is to be racialized, there’s no one meaning of that, so it was very interesting to see how someone like Candy, who’s indigenous, was raised. She talks about how she’s partly become this unapologetic, bold, hilarious, fearless person in the world because she was raised with such love and affection by her family, and never any shame. But that’s just one side of the spectrum.
The film manages to balance being an accessible entry point to ‘body positivity’ and fat activism, whilst also still speaking to those more familiar with those concepts. Was that something you consciously tried to achieve? Who is your intended audience for Well Rounded?
SM: It always helps to have an expert by your side, because you’ll always have a critic on your shoulder to some extent. We start the film off with these joyous images of these fat babes out in the world, and then immediately we put in what I call the ‘troll scroll’, with these real awful tweets and online messages about the actual cast members. Knowing that the film could potentially be seen by more than a handful of people who are politically onside, we knew we had to do a bit of convincing. So along with sharing personal stories, the health expert and the historian are there to give context past what we know experientially.
These experts are not guided by instinct or bias, but have actually done the work and crunched the numbers – and they’re saying that we’re doing this wrong. We’re penalising people for their bodies, we’re denying access to healthcare, there’s increased rates of discrimination in the workplace…the list goes on. It’s a huge topic for us to try and address. I offer it up to the world as an entrance point to thinking about these things.
Near the end of the film, Candy [Palmater, a Canadian comedian] says that she tries to free women by the virtue of her own liberty. Was that your intention with Well Rounded?
SM: Exactly that, yeah. And to be honest, I was probably searching for that for myself first, and hoping to find it, and then communicate it outwards.
Sometimes you find your courage when you see other people’s lead, and poring over these interviews with all these killer, talented, successful, fat, unapologetic, radical, racialized queers, it was the best coaching for me. I spent so many hours in the editing suite with them and I came out of it a transformed person. Because even though intellectually I had shared a lot of their viewpoints and opinions beforehand, it was really time and repetition that I needed, especially around people who I respected so much. Their camaraderie and their confidence has just infused in me, and that is definitely what I hope to offer to the world with this film.
Secretly, my only ambition for this film is for like-minded people who need it to find it. The intention was definitely liberty.
This interview was edited and condensed for clarity.
Images courtesy of BFI Flare Festival.