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Director Eisha Marjara discloses her teenage wish to never grow up in “Am I the Skinniest Person You’ve Ever Seen?”

Marjara
A young Eisha Marjara in "Am I the Skinniest Person You've Ever Seen?" Photo courtesy of National Film Board of Canada.

Director and writer Eisha Marjara declares in her short documentary that her biggest teenage enemy was time. But it’s not for the reason that some of us think of time—i.e., having too few minutes in a day to get everything done.

In “Am I the Skinniest Person You’ve Ever Seen?”, Marjara says that she wanted to halt time to stop her body from evolving into womanhood. Her astonishing filmed memoir about anorexia—and the bond she shared with her sister—recently screened at the Hot Docs Festival, where it won the Betty Youson Award for Best Canadian Short Documentary.

It will have its B.C. premiere on Friday (May 10) at the DOXA Documentary Film Festival.

Marjara tells the Toronto Spark by phone that as she went through her teenage diaries, she noticed a theme in her entries.

“I’m scared of growing up,” she wrote in the early 1980s. “I’m scared of my future. I don’t know what I want to be.”

Marjara believes this helps explain why she developed an eating disorder as a teenager in Trois-Rivières, Quebec. It came after she and her sister both embarked on a diet together. Her sister, Seema, stopped after a while, but Marjara carried on.

“The body does try to revert and return to childhood,” Marjara explains. “A girl loses all her curves.”

She can also stop growing and cease having her period, which are other ways of remaining in childhood.

Early in the National Film Board of Canada production, Marjara reveals that because of her shocking weight loss, she was dragged from school and taken to a hospital. There, her skeletal body was photographed and documented.

“A camera comes on and I’m made to look at myself,” Marjara says as the adult narrator. “I weigh 56 pounds.”

A healthcare worker asks the 18-year-old Marjara on video if she finds that she’s too skinny.

“Yes, I am too skinny,” she responds. “But what does it matter?”

Marjara
Eisha Marjara as a teenager. Photo courtesy of National Film Board of Canada.

Marjara wrote script for NFB

Then, she flips back into being the narrator: “Looking back, I realize that I had turned my body into a project. A revolt against nature, Mother Nature. My mother. A revolt against womanhood, adulthood.”

The writing is spare, accessible, and utterly captivating, particularly her use of poetic repetition. Marjara tells thee Toronto Spark that it only took her a day to write the core text of the 23-minute film.

“I said, ‘Well, let’s see how far this goes before it just falls apart and I never end up making this movie,’ ” the Montreal-based director says. “I was playing and having fun with the language. Because I love writing, it’s probably one of my favourite parts of filmmaking.”

Marjara wrote the script in response to a National Film Board of Canada request for story ideas. She had already written a young-adult novel, Faerie, about a Punjabi Canadian teenager named Lila, who develops anorexia.

She couldn’t adapt the novel because the NFB produces documentaries. So, Marjara decided to write about her own experience with an eating disorder.

Marjara was born in Delhi and the family immigrated to Quebec when her Punjabi Sikh father landed a job as a professor of English literature. Her mother was a teacher. According to Marjara, her mom had trouble finding employment in her field due to her Indian accent as well as the shortage of teaching jobs in Trois-Rivières. That brought on tremendous sadness.

“I was very sensitive to her moods all the time,” Marjara says.

Eisha Marjara
Eisha Marjara wrote the core of her film in a day. Photo courtesy of National Film Board of Canada.

Teenager rejects her culture

It raises a question whether there was any link between her eating disorder and being part of a tiny minority in Quebec at the time. Marjara replies that in the 1980s and early ’90s, more voluptuous and curvy bodies were celebrated in Indian culture. But that wasn’t the case in North America.

“I responded by having this eating disorder—going on diets after diets trying to lose weight—as a way to sort of reject my culture,” she says.

Moreover, the diets were also her way of rejecting a future of becoming an Indian housewife, like her mom, with a hard life.

“We didn’t want a hard life,” Marjara says. “I wanted to belong; I wanted to fit in; I wanted to be like a white kid. That’s sort of the implication in the story.”

For visuals, she went into her extensive family archive of photographs and videos, as well as the NFB archives, which were available to her online. Once Marjara realized that the film would be made, she started feeling nervous.

“The producers took the pressure off me and said ‘You can just do it in your own time,’ ” Marjara recalls. “That’s when I started to really enjoy the process.”

Her other films include the dramatic short “House for Sale” and the full-length docudrama Desperately Seeking Helen.

Sisters
Young Eisha and sister Seema play with dolls. Photo courtesy of the National Film Board of Canada.

A bond between sisters

Marjara doesn’t mention in “Am I the Skinniest Person That You’ve Ever Seen” that after she received treatment for her eating disorder, her family suffered a monumental tragedy. Her mother and her sister Seema were killed in the Air India bombing on June 23, 1985.

At the time, Marjara says that she mourned the loss of her mom. However, she adds that she never really processed the death of her sister.

“I felt very close to her while working on the film,” Marjara acknowledges. “Every time I watch it, that’s my favourite part of the film—when I talk about her.”

The director never anticipated this to occur when she began this project.

“I was, in a way, investigating her by looking at all of the images that I had of her,” Marjara says. “That’s when I realized that I never really grieved her.”

Watch a clip from the film above. The DOXA Documentary Film Festival presents “Am I the Skinniest Person You’ve Ever Seen?” at 12:30 p.m. on Friday (May 10). It will be screened in the Djavad Mowafaghian Cinema in the SFU Woodward’s Goldcorp Centre for the Arts. For more information and tickets, visit the DOXA website.

Learn more about the communities that make up Canada on the Toronto Spark website. Follow the Toronto Spark on X @TOSparkOfficial.

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Charlie Smith

Charlie Smith

Toronto Spark editor Charlie Smith has worked as a journalist in print, radio, and television for more than three decades.

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