Graduates' Project Shines at Sundance

Among the autograph hounds, ruthless executives, and puffy-jacketed celebrities at this year’s Sundance Film Festival stood three Harvard alumni in town for the premiere of the film they had worked on together for the past four years. “Thin”—directed by Lauren Greenfield ’87, produced by R.J. Cutler ’83, and shot by Amanda R. Micheli ’95—entered this year into the festival’s documentary competition, and the trio weren’t about to miss an opportunity to bask in Sundance’s glory.

In a way, they didn’t have to be there. Most filmmakers at the festival show up in order to find studio funding, but HBO bought the premise from Cutler at the outset of the project in 2002. Greenfield, Micheli, and Cutler were able to focus all their attention on enjoying the festival—the first for all three—and the completion of their four-year effort.

The week in Utah was even more satisfying for the filmmakers because of the documentary’s success at Sundance: long lines of festivalgoers were turned away for all four of the film’s showings in Park City, which were marked by a strong response from the audience. “Some of the screenings have been very emotional,” said Greenfield. “People are coming at it from a personal, not academic place, which I wouldn’t have predicted. There’s been a lot of crying.”

“Thin” follows four women who suffer from eating disorders during their stays at the Renfrew Center, an eating disorder treatment facility in Fla. While their experiences are marked by clashes with staff members, tensions between patients, and bouts of severe depression, by far the most wrenching scenes involve food, and Micheli’s camera never falters as the women struggle to force down cupcakes and, more than once, give in to purging.

None of the scenes are staged, as the filmmakers did their best not to involve themselves in the lives of their subjects.

“We never told them what to do or what not to do, and never played a double role as police,” said Greenfield.

The film itself was inspired by “Girl Culture,” a collection of photos of young American women that Greenfield published in 2002. While on tour with an exhibit of photos from the book, Greenfield spoke with Cutler about putting together a film with similar themes. “I was a collector of her work,” said Cutler, who produced renowned political documentary “The War Room” in 1993.

The two chose eating disorders to be their primary subject, and preproduction began in September of 2002, during which the filmmakers recruited Micheli and first visited Renfrew.

Despite their close work on the project, Greenfield, Cutler, and Micheli come from diverse backgrounds, both in terms of their time at Harvard and the paths they chose to follow afterwards. Greenfield and Micheli were Visual and Environmental Studies concentrators, while Cutler worked in a special concentration and was active in the theatre scene. After graduating, Greenfield became a professional photographer, Micheli began making films, and Cutler bounced around between radio, film, and TV production. The three did not even meet until long after college.

Yet the filmmakers do have one thing in common with respect to their education: all cite a Harvard faculty member as a major influence on their respective bodies of work. For Cutler, it was Professor of Film Studies Bill Rothman ’65. Greenfield and Micheli refer to Arnhein Lecturer on Filmmaking Rob Moss, who saw an early cut of the film, and who Greenfield said provided “some much-needed perspective.”

Back at Sundance, Greenfield, Cutler, and Micheli seemed to be gaining some perspective of their own. Though there is much more in store for “Thin”—which will air on HBO this fall accompanied by an educational program and will also be adapted by Greenfield as a book of the same name—the three relished the opportunity to step back from their finished product, if only for a second.

“It’s not until you show it that it’s really done,” said Cutler, on his first trip to the festival. “And that makes being here lovely.”