Phyllis Ellis: “Everyone has an opinion about your film”

Everyone has an opinion about your film. Notes are great but nobody is as close to the subjects, the story, the sound, the feel and the locked picture as you. Especially if there are a lot of men, noting a film that is a woman’s POV. Makes no sense. Structure notes are fine. Take the […]

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Everyone has an opinion about your film. Notes are great but nobody is as close to the subjects, the story, the sound, the feel and the locked picture as you. Especially if there are a lot of men, noting a film that is a woman’s POV. Makes no sense. Structure notes are fine. Take the good ones and throw the others out. They hired you or you brought your creative to them. Take control, fight for your vision and take no bullshit from people who are sitting on the sidelines.

As a part of our series about “Filmmakers Making A Social Impact” I had the pleasure of interviewing Phyllis Ellis.

Independent filmmaker Phyllis Ellis is a native of Canada and has worked in Europe, Asia, Africa, India and the U.S. for the past thirty-five years as a filmmaker, writer, actor and producer. Phyllis’s work addresses themes of justice, truth, human rights and issues relating to women’s experiences individually, in communities and in the world. She is dedicated to telling stories that empower women’s voices through social/political narratives.

Thank you so much for doing this interview with us! Before we dive in, our readers would love to get to know you a bit. Can you share your “backstory” that brought you to this career?

I was an Olympian, and competed in Los Angeles for Canada in 1984. As a young woman, I was introduced to amazing people who were making social, political and high impact change for women and girls. While I was privileged as an athlete, especially born in the Global North, I observed many inequities, always asking myself about what levels the playing field both as a concept and literally. I had a parallel interest in the arts. Many iterations as an comedic actor and director, I was invited to write and direct my first feature documentary film, About Her, following nine, young women with Her2+ breast cancer. The film changed my life and my life path. The opportunity to spend time in women’s lives, to be able to articulate through film their points of view, to contribute to change, with real people and real stories, is how I came to choosing documentary film making as my career.

Who are some of the most interesting people you have interacted with? What was that like? Do you have any stories?

It is a privilege to spend time with someone very close to the end of life. It is also very difficult getting to know people very well and to know they will die during the process of making the film. It is an honour to be a witness to feelings they haven’t shared with anyone. I think the most interesting and intimate relationship I had was with a woman named Jacqueline Fox. She had already passed away when I was given her audio deposition for our film Toxic Beauty. I listened to her for months. I came to know her through her voice, her story telling, sense of humour, her pain, fears, vulnerability and strength fighting for justice in an incredibly difficult litigation. And doing so because she didn’t want what happened to her to happen to any other woman.

What are some of the most interesting or exciting projects you are working on now?

I’m editing a film about Olympic sport, human rights and women’s rights and in development on a film working title ‘Beautiful’.

Which people in history inspire you the most? Why?

In no particular order: Karen Silkwood, Gertrude Stein, Dian Fossey, Mary Queen of Scots, Harriet Tubman, Ann Frank, Joan of Arc, Rosa Parks, Jane Austin, Emmeline Pankhurst, Mother Theresa .

Recent history: Benazir Bhutto, Billie Jean King, Yoko Ono, Janice Mock, Patti Smith, Caster Semenya, Ryan Murphy and Gloria Steinem.

Because they are all people who created seismic shifts in their world and in ‘the’ world.

Let’s now shift to the main focus of our interview, how are you using your success to bring goodness to the world? Can you share with us the meaningful or exciting social impact causes you are working on right now?

I hope we have made a meaningful contribution with our film Toxic Beauty to the larger and vital conversation in North America and around the globe about harmful toxicants, chemicals and carcinogens in our cosmetics and personal care products. And that we have offered a platform for women’s voices and stories to be heard and for audiences world wide to know their fight not only for justice but for their lives and for everyone to know their names. To spotlight extraordinary scientists, researchers, physicians, advocates who are changing the world.

As for me, I use film to express myself as an activist/advocate and storyteller who highlights women’s stories. The people I meet that invite us into the most intimate parts of their lives, makes me a better human, mother, friend, daughter, filmmaker and I think there is goodness in that.

Many of us have ideas, dreams, and passions, but never manifest it. But you did. Was there an “Aha Moment” that made you decide that you were actually going to step up and take action for this cause? What was that final trigger?

When everybody said it wasn’t true, it couldn’t be true and I met some of the women in the film and I knew it was. And then I met Dr. Daniel Crammer who had proven a causal link between ovarian cancer and the use of talc in 1983. I had used talc extensively as an athlete at least 4 times a day for over 10 years. Dr. Crammer said that this equated to a lifetime use and that I was likely at risk and that I should get my ovarian tissues tested for talc. And I thought if the most trusted brand in the world was linked to ovarian cancer, what else are we putting on our bodies that could cause us harm? That was the Aha Moment.

Can you tell us a story about a particular individual who was impacted or helped by your cause?

Sometimes you worry as a filmmaker. Quiet moments. Have I taken this story too far? or have I researched this enough to know it’s true? Will I get sued, vilified, challenged? Yes, yes and yes and it causes one pause. Then you meet a person in your film like Deane Berg, who challenged Big Pharma, said no to 1.2 million dollars by Big Pharma to walk away from the lawsuit and to shut her down. She said no and won her suit and without receiving any financial settlement set the stage for 10’s of thousands of women to fight.

She told us that participating in the film validated her, meeting the other women who also had talc in their tissues, with ovarian cancer, impacted her greatly and the experience was full circle.

If she can have the courage take on one of the biggest pharmaceutical companies in the world, then I can have the courage to tell her story and the stories of the other women in the film.

Are there three things that individuals, society or the government can do to support you in this effort?

  1. Contact your Senators and Congress people to ban the use of talc in all cosmetics and personal care products and demand stealth regulations for Cosmetics and Personal Care products. And like Dr. Ami Zota says in the film, “We have to change these beauty norms so women don’t have to choose between their health and trying to look beautiful based on these arbitrary standards.”
  2. For society to trust and believe in science, not brands or marketing/advertising campaigns or politicians with agendas, but peer reviewed science. Harmful chemicals, toxicants and carcinogens in cosmetics and personal care products are not like people, they are not innocent till proven guilty. Use the precautionary principle. If there is a chance, even a small chance that some cosmetic or care product could possibly do harm, impact your endocrine system or your children’s health or cause cancer, why take the risk.
  3. For Government to protect people from harmful toxicants, chemicals, carcinogens, in products we use every day — cosmetics and personal care products. Experts state it is an assault on women, even though men use these products regularly. I always say if men’s testicles were falling off because of the use of a product, this would have been addressed long ago..

What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why. Please share a story or example for each.

1 . Don’t apologize or change your point of view for a producer/executive producer or network. I will only say that I didn’t have the confidence early in my career to challenge notes/edits an Executive Producer wanted and I’ve never been able to watch that film since I made it.

2. Make sure you have someone excellent to negotiate your fee for writing and directing documentaries. Documentaries take a long time. Sometimes a fee seems reasonable or even great but when you amortize it over 2 or 3 years it ends up not feeling awesome. People seem to take pride in ‘we do it because we love it’, ‘money doesn’t matter’. That’s true if it’s your self-funded passion project. But if it’s a film financed by or through an Exec Producer or Network, everyone is getting paid so make sure you do as well.

3.Healthy boundaries. Protect both you and the subjects in your film. One of my first films I got very close to a person who was in remission and then before we could finish, she only had days to live. I had become so close to her I lost perspective.

4. Assure you get your directors cut and if possible final cut. Everyone has an opinion about your film. Notes are great but nobody is as close to the subjects, the story, the sound, the feel and the locked picture as you. Especially if there are a lot of men, noting a film that is a woman’s POV. Makes no sense. Structure notes are fine. Take the good ones and throw the others out. They hired you or you brought your creative to them. Take control, fight for your vision and take no bullshit from people who are sitting on the sidelines.

5. It’s important to differentiate a great story you want to tell and that needs to be told from a story that you should tell. Sometimes, even if it is not obvious to us, we appropriate stories that should be told by the people who have the lived experience. I was invited to do a film about an Indigenous community and they were very open and the Elders asked me to make the film. But I believe the film would have been much better served if an Indigenous filmmaker had made the film. This is for many reasons. Representation, opportunity, respect for diverse artists and diverse women artists and simply, it wasn’t my story to tell. I say this with great respect for the film we all made but this was a massive teaching opportunity for me. I’m still evaluating creative decisions I am making and committed to supporting emerging filmmakers.

If you could tell other young people one thing about why they should consider making a positive impact on our environment or society, like you, what would you tell them?

My mother always says if you want to be happy for a minute, eat chocolate cake, if you want to be happy for a while, marry rich, if you want to be happy for the rest of your life, be of service to others. I guess I would simply say that contributing to any narrative that leans into positive change either to individual lives, communities or society is not only our right but also our responsibility. And frankly it makes you feel deeply involved and engaged in life.

We are very blessed that many other Social Impact Heroes read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US, whom you would like to collaborate with, and why? He or she might see this. 🙂

Melinda Gates because she is making change at the highest level but touching individuals internationally and I imagine it must be truly amazing to have the financial bandwidth to actually be on the frontlines and fund anything from vaccine research to rebuilding communities, provide serious attention to global women’s health and human rights issues and influence thought leader across cultures. Her focus on the Global South and understanding of world issues macro and micro is unprecedented.

And Caster Semenya, who is a champion from South Africa on and off the track.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

“Great people do things before they are ready.”

It’s relevant to me in my life because it’s inspired me to do it, even if I haven’t done whatever it’ is before. I keep the quote in the middle of the massive board where I put up cards when I’m writing a film. I think about it whenever I’m facing a particularly challenging, controversial or dangerous subject matter for a project. And it helps me to trust that all of the prep we do will serve us. I remember I threw up before the opening game at the Olympics I was so nervous, but I walked onto the field. I know I have been brave before I have been ready.

How can our readers follow you online?

I’m not much for social media so I personally don’t post much. But my film Toxic Beauty has an instagram @toxicbeauty.doc and website

This was great, thank you so much for sharing your story and doing this with us. We wish you continued success!

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