Expat Business: Writer, filmmaker and photographer Elena Rossini
With our focus on international businesswomen, one talented expat making her own way in France talks about the challenges that make her work ambitious but satisfying.
An Italian, honorary American and expat in Paris, Elena impresses with more than just her linguistic skills. Her projects No Country for Young Women and The Illusionists deal with issues primarily centered around women – body image, the beauty myth, marketing manipulation and gender discrimination.
Your work seeks to reveal and understand the inherent contradictions within the beauty and fashion industries and their subsequent implications on the female self-confidence and body image.
Did the desire to pursue this particular topic originate from a particular incident (or particular incidences) in your personal life? If not, what are some of the factors that contributed to your interest?
Actually, what has drawn me to this subject is the issue of advertising and mass media manipulation; the beauty and fashion industries are only the tip of the iceberg. I am intrigued by what lies beneath: the sophisticated studies that have been carried out as early as 1903 on consumer behavior and motivational marketing.
To paraphrase one of my favorite authors and heroes Vance Packard: advertisers and marketers understood early on that sales depended to a large extent on manipulating our hidden fears and anxieties. They have been exploiting that ever since.
What really intrigues me is that happy people are considered 'bad consumers' by advertisers and marketers. And thus they prey on people's insecurities and manufacture desires and goals that are very difficult – if not impossible to attain.
Like our obsession over looking eternally young: there's endless consumerism built around that. Entire industries would crumble if the majority of women started loving and accepting their bodies – regardless of their age, skin color, shape, or bra size.
Unfortunately women are still judged first and foremost based on their appearance, irrespective of their professional or personal accomplishments. I find this rather primitive.
No Country for Young Women looks at gender and age discrimination in the workplace. As someone who has worked in four different countries – the US, England, Italy and most recently France, where did you find this to be most prevalent and did it affect you directly?
Professionally speaking, I have had the toughest time in France for reasons that transcend age and gender discrimination – they are cultural and systemic issues. Meritocracy is virtually nonexistent in France: 'copinage' (nepotism) is widely practiced across the board. Young professionals under the age of 35 – male or female – have a hard time being taken seriously.
What I sometimes find heartbreaking is that very little is expected of me – but my French boyfriend has the same experience. There is also a rather monolithic order in French companies and society: rules set in stone, fear of change and conformism. So, being an Italian born, American-educated rebellious spirit has been hard in France but I welcome the challenges.
Whenever there is an issue that bothers me, I tend to face it head on and turn it into a project. Last fall I spent three blissful weeks in the United States attending women's conferences and networking with inspiring activists.
A week after my return to Paris, I purchased a leading French business magazine and flipping through its pages I could not find a single photo of a woman. Only older, white French men, page after page. Finally, there she was, midway through the magazine: a scantly clad woman in an ad for a car.
I registered the domain name nocountryforyoungwomen.com the same day and everything followed from there. The project has brought me immeasurable satisfaction and has allowed me to channel my frustrations into something positive.
We can also add website designer, photographer and writer to your artistic arsenal. What about film attracts you more than your other talents?
I fell in love with filmmaking relatively late at the age of 22. Before then, I wasn't really sure what the future would hold for me. All I knew was that I loved writing, reading, watching art house films, taking photos, and doing graphic design.
In filmmaking I found an activity that incorporates all my passions: I have been writing, directing, shooting, and editing 99 percent of all projects I have worked on. I don't even register fatigue when I am shooting or editing a film: I have such a great time that I can go on for 12-hour stretches without the slightest hint of weariness. I simply love filmmaking.
You've mentioned having mixed feelings about the idea of ever living in Italy again. Can you elaborate on this?
I am extremely proud of being Italian -- my home country has a rich cultural heritage that I admire tremendously. Just thinking of some of the luminaries that Italy has produced over the centuries gives me goosebumps: Dante, Petrarca, Galileo, Leonardo, Michelangelo, Verdi, Fellini. You’ve got to love a country in which they start making you study Dante at the age of 11.
I also love the sunny disposition of Italians, how passionate they are, their aesthetic sense, the constant search for beauty and excellence in everyday things. Not to mention close family ties: Italian moms are true Wonder Women (I call mine at least once every two days -- she's my best friend).
I enjoy immensely the time I spend in Italy but I don't envision settling down there for reasons cited before: it is an aging, lethargic country ruled by farcical political elite that is going through a rapid cultural decline.
That said, the person I admire the most in this world is Italian, living in Rome: Nobel laureate Rita Levi Montalcini, who at 101 (yes, 101) still gets up every day at 5 in the morning and goes to work in her lab, supervising a team of all-female scientists. In the afternoon she heads to her foundation on the other side of Rome, devoted to improving African women's education. She has such moxie!
Five year plan – where do you see yourself?
My number one goal is to finance and complete my documentary The Illusionists – our current plan is to make a 100-minute film, a companion book, and an interactive, participative web site.
My (and my producers') ultimate goal is to make much more than a film: it's a mission, if you will – to create something that will generate discussions on self–esteem and media literacy.
Some films take up to five years to make, so I hope that by 2015 all my hard work will have paid off and that The Illusionists will have seen the light. If the film manages to improve the body image of even just one woman, I will be tremendously happy.
Five years from now I also see myself still working on projects related to women and power. I want to combine my love for travel and my interest in gender issues, filming interviews of women for No Country in various locations around the world.
Reprinted with permission from Lost in Cheeseland.
Lindsey is an American expat from Philadelphia who moved to Paris for love and adventure. You can read about her musings on Paris love, life, food and more on her blog Lost in Cheeseland.
Comment here on the article, or if you have a suggestion to improve this article, please click here.