Trigger Warning: mention of sexual abuse
Chubby follows the story of ten-year-old Jude (Maya Harman) who reveals to her family that she has been sexually abused. The film approaches sexual assault from a distinct angle as Jude grapples with betrayal from her close ones and loneliness. Her family struggles to come to terms with the revelations Jude has made and doubt her claims.
Chubby reminds the audience that sexual abuse should not be treated as a taboo topic. In fact, it touches upon the glossed over reality that sexual abuse by relatives is more frequent than is talked about. The film encourages audiences to believe in the victims and help them heal from a traumatic experience.
I had the pleasure of speaking with the Director of the film Madeleine Sims-Fewer. She provided me with some more insight into the film itself and what she hoped to achieve from it.
Ayesha: Where did the concept originate from?
Madeleine Sims-Fewer: The idea for Chubby came from a very personal place. While the story is fiction, the idea originated from an incident in my own childhood.
Dusty: We both drew on our own experiences with abuse from our pasts when constructing the narrative. All of our films start from a place of personal connection. That’s definitely our way into any story as filmmakers.
A. From the onset of the film, it did not seem like it deals with such a serious and sensitive topic. Was there a particular reason that the plot was not revealed from the beginning?
M: Definitely. We wanted to sort of lull the audience into the sense of fun and ease that Jude feels. She’s not expecting what happens to her. She actually feels totally comfortable and in her element. Because of this, she is totally blindsided, and because she trusts her brother it makes his actions all the more painful and shocking. We wanted to situate the audience completely with her emotional journey.
A. I read online that the story is very personal to you and that you have been through a similar experience during your childhood. Was the filming process emotionally challenging or taxing for you at all?
M: Yes, it was. In some ways, I wasn’t totally prepared for how tough it would be. As a director, you have to hold it all together, in a sense, so there was definitely some compartmentalizing going on! But afterward, I felt drained and purged.
A. What was the casting process like? How did you prepare Maya for the role? Was Maya able to portray the character of Jude the way you envisioned it?
M: We knew that casting Jude was going to be incredibly difficult. Not only did we want to find a kid with infectious energy who was able to be herself on camera, but we needed to find someone who was comfortable with the difficult subject matter. We posted our casting call everywhere we could think of and auditioned hundreds of young girls before we came across Maya Harman. We had seen Maya’s headshot when searching local After School acting programs and asked her to tape an audition. She was in Montenegro with her family at the time, but she recorded her scenes with her older brother on vacation. Maya’s mom included a blooper reel of outtakes with her tape, and as soon as we watched it we knew — she was Jude — we had to cast her.
Maya had never acted in a film before and was very nervous, so we had a lot of Skype sessions just getting to know her so that we could all get comfortable with each other. When she initially auditioned she said that she felt it was important for her to play the character of Jude because it will hopefully inspire other young people to speak out if they have been abused. She had such maturity and understanding of the role that we knew we could get her to the place we needed. She was exactly what we envisioned, and much more.
Dusty: On the last day we showed her a picture of Madeleine when she was 9, and Maya was speechless – the resemblance was staggering.
A. The film constantly switches from moments of familial warmth and joy to more serious nerve-wracking ones – almost surprising the audience. Could you let us know a bit more about your approach in terms of cinematography?
M: We wanted the film to feel intimate and visceral, so we shot handheld with all-natural light. Performance always comes first for us, and we wanted the actors to feel entirely comfortable in space, so there were no lights around them, and we used long lenses which allowed our DOP Adam to be relatively far away from the actors while still feeling personal and almost claustrophobic to the audience. There are also these macro close-ups in the film that punctuate the triggers for Jude – small sensory moments that bring us back with her to the event she can’t stop thinking about. We shot the whole film using tail slates, so we were able to roll the camera and improvise into the scene, without having someone run in and call the take number – and without ever calling “action” – so that the film would have a very organic flow and feel.
A. Do you think you will make any other films addressing the same subject matter? Or perhaps, convert Chubby into a series or a feature film?
M: For us, the story of Chubby always existed as a short. It is about this one moment in time. We completed our first feature, Violation, last year and it deals with very similar themes of trauma and sexual violence. Violation is currently playing Sundance film festival and will be released in Spring 2021. In a way, Violation is a culmination of the themes from all of our shorts and ends a very significant chapter in our work.
A. Chubby does a commendable job in addressing sexual assault and encouraging families to believe victims. Do you think the film will help de-stigmatize conversations about sexual abuse within families?
M: We really hope so! We just watched a fantastic documentary at Sundance called “Cusp” about 3 teenage girls, and there are some disturbing conversations they have around abuse they suffered at the hands of people they trusted. It’s happening all around us but it’s not a fact people are comfortable discussing. This idea that abuse should be kept “in the family” is an idea we want to break apart. Only if we are able to talk openly and honestly about abuse will it ever change.
A. What did you want your audiences to take from the film?
M: We hope they take some empathy for Jude and for families dealing with abuse. It’s not easy, but with understanding and open, frank conversation things can change.