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TFS Instructors Aim to Raise Eating Disorder Awareness with New Film, ‘Straw Man’

A recently wrapped new short film from Toronto Film School instructors/ alumni Kearsten Johansson and Chad Tailor aims to challenge the gender assumptions many people make about eating disorders.

 

Based on the 2018 Canadian memoir of the same name, Straw Man tells the story of Toronto lawyer Jacob Roth and his struggles with anorexia nervosa during his first year of university.

 

 

“When you say ‘anorexia’ to me, the first image that pops into my head is of a young woman struggling. Before reading Jake’s book, I didn’t even really think much about how body issues affect young men,” admitted Johansson, a Class of 2014 Acting for Film, TV & the Theatre graduate for whom Straw Man marked her solo directorial debut.

 

“It just goes to show that this disorder has no gender bias, that it can affect anyone out there, but that there is a way out. That’s the message we want to send to anyone out there struggling silently.”

 

Straw Man director Kearsten Johansson and producer Chad Tailor.

 

Indeed, according to the National Eating Disorders Association, males not only represent 25 per cent of individuals with anorexia nervosa – an eating disorder characterized by weight loss, difficulties maintaining an appropriate body weight, and distorted body image – they also run a higher risk of dying from it.

 

With Straw Man, the aim is to increase awareness and decrease stigma attached to eating disorders – particularly for boys and men, who oftentimes go undiagnosed until it’s too late due to a lack of knowledge and understanding.

 

“I think it’s a very important subject matter to highlight – especially hearing it from a male perspective, because you hardly ever hear of that,” said Tailor, Johansson’s fellow TFS alumnus-turned-instructor, whom she brought on to the film as its producer.

 

“For me, the moment Kearsten approached me, in my mind this project was always something that was going to go beyond film festivals. We, as filmmakers, make films for people, not just other filmmakers – and we really want Straw Man to be seen by people who will be influenced the most by it and who will take something from it.”

 

 

Johansson was likewise taken with Roth’s story right from the start.

 

Following a chance encounter with Roth at the punching bags of her neighbourhood gym in 2018, Johansson’s interest was piqued when she learned the “bubbly” criminal defence attorney she trained with had recently published a memoir.

 

“I was just so blown away by his story and everything he went through. When you meet Jacob, he’s just so upbeat and he’s got this great sense of humour, and so I never would have known that he had gone through something like that,” she said, noting that she knew just a few pages into the book that she wanted to turn Roth’s story into a film.

 

“He’s such a great visual storyteller that I thought it would make for a really interesting story to help get out to a broader audience in the film medium.”

 

 

Right away, Johansson started adapting a script based on Roth’s recounting of his university experience and approached Roth with it back at the gym soon after. He surprisingly didn’t take much convincing.

 

“He’s been really great about trusting us with his story,” Johansson said. “Some things in the film were not exactly how he experienced them, but rather how a lot of other people who suffer from the same disorder have experienced it. So, he was very supportive of letting us go in another direction that wasn’t necessarily his story, but echoes of other people’s stories.”

 

During a recent interview with Johansson in support of the Straw Man film’s indiegogo campaign, Roth expressed his excitement at seeing the film come together.

 

“I’m excited about it. I’m really looking forward to seeing how the talented team interprets the memoir,” he said.

 

“I’ve provided some feedback, but it was pretty minimal. I really enjoyed the first draft of the script, and…I’m really grateful that Kearsten and the team were interested in taking on this project.”

 

After securing the rights to the book, Johansson started thinking about who she’d like to bring onto the Straw Man film, which marked her second directorial credit after Read or Alive – an award-winning short thriller she produced, starred in, and co-directed alongside Trent Newton.

 

While Tailor was her first choice as producer, he was far from the only TFS community member Johansson commissioned to help bring Roth’s story from the page to the screen.

 

 

In fact, nearly 99 per cent of Straw Man’s cast and crew consists of current students and alumni – including cinematographer Artem Mykhailetskyi (Film Production ’18), production manager/script supervisor Yeimy Daza (Film Production ’19), lead actor Joseph Dancey (Acting for Film, TV & the Theatre ’18), and visual effects artist Will Dano (Film Production ’18), just to name a few.

 

“Being that we’re instructors at TFS and also alumni, the network here is amazing and we’ve come across so many talented actors, technicians, and cinematographers,” Tailor said.

 

“Kearsten and I, we wanted to pick the best of the best for our cast and crew – the people we really wanted to work with, the ones whose work inspired us – and it just so happened that 99 per cent of our cast and crew is TFS alumni.”

 

 

For their parts, both Daza and Mykhailetskyi said the decision to sign on the project with Johansson at its helm was a no-brainer.

 

“My experience working with Kearsten is that she’s really open to exploring things and looking at ideas from different perspectives to see which cogs, so to speak, fit together better for the story to work,” said Mykhailetskyi, who also worked as the cinematographer on Johansson’s Read or Alive set.

 

“I love the conversations we have. We always try to challenge each other in a creative way. She’s always open to ideas, always eager to learn something new, always finding ways to make things better.”

 

For fellow director Daza – whose TFS capstone film, Poly, took home three awards from the 2019 Toronto Film School Festival of Films, including Best Picture and Best Director – working with an actor-turned-director was an enlightening experience.

 

“As an actress, she knows when the actors are giving their best performance, and she knows how to get that from them – and I feel that that’s one of the most important things, as a director,” she said of Johansson, who recently appeared in a Super Bowl ad for Roku.

 

“It was amazing, also, to be able to see her grow as a director. I remember our first shooting block, there were a lot of questions and things to figure out, but by the last block, she was way more confident.”

 

 

With shooting of the Straw Man short having just wrapped on Feb. 16 – a mere five days before National Eating Disorder Awareness Week kicks off on Feb. 21 – both Johansson and Tailor are looking forward to heading into post-production, with a goal of finishing the film by this summer.

 

From there, the filmmaking duo plan to not only submit Straw Man to various film festivals, but also get it into the hands of various organizations, such as the National Eating Disorder Information Centre, the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health, and other educational institutions that might be able to share it to wider audience.

 

“We really want it to go farther than the festivals. We want this film to reach audiences that are going to take something from it,” said Tailor, who has first-hand experience of the impact of such films.

 

For his TFS thesis film, Tailor opted to write, direct and produce A Done Deal – a powerful short based on his own true story with drug addiction. That film went on to be toured across Canada by the RCMP’s Drug Awareness Campaign.

 

“I was toured around high schools here in Ontario as part of that campaign, and that’s something we’d love to do with this film, too. High schoolers are at such an impressionable age, and that’s when you need to see that you’re not the only one struggling with any type of situation.”

 

 

“With Straw Man, we want to be part of that conversation about ending stigmas and being able to openly talk about you’re going through,” Johansson added, noting that, in addition to eating disorders, the film also touches on topics including bullying, body dysmorphia, social isolation in the dawn of social media, and mental health.

 

“I really hope that these measures we’re taking are going to help this next generation, so they don’t feel afraid to reach out and look for help if they’re struggling; that they know there are resources available to them if they need them.”