ON BEAUTY is the latest film from award-winning filmmaker Joanna Rudnick and Chicago’s Kartemquin Films. The film looks at beauty through the lens of fashion photographer Rick Guidotti, who highlights vibrant individuals with genetic conditions. His photographs are a stark contrast to the sad, isolated figures seen in medical textbooks and they inspire many to change their public perceptions on what it means to be beautiful.
Rick had a successful career in New York, Milan and Paris and worked for clients such as Elle, Harper’s Bazaar and Yves Saint Laurent. He grew frustrated with having to work within the industry’s restrictive standards of beauty. One day in New York, he had a chance meeting with a stunning young woman who had albinism. He was immediately struck by her beauty and researched the genetic condition.
What he found in medical textbooks were depressing images with dehumanizing black bars covering the person’s eyes. He partnered with the National Organization for Albinism and Hypopigmentation to create a set of photos that highlighted the individual not the disease. His photos appeared in Life Magazine in June 1998. Soon after he created a foundation built on his mission called Positive Exposure.
Joanna first saw Rick’s stunning photographs at a Genetic Alliance conference in 2009 where she was presenting her directorial debut film, “In the Family.” She was speaking about her own experience with having an unseen genetic condition and began to think about what it would be like to have a condition that made you visibly different.
For the past five years, Joanna has followed Rick around the world, from his studio in New York City to conference halls in Las Vegas to a remote village in Kenya. At the center of the film are two people he meets along the way: Sarah Kanney and Jayne Waithera.
Sarah was born with Sturge-Weber syndrome, a condition that leaves a port wine birthmark on her face and brain. Since she was four, she has needed multiple eye surgeries, but it hasn’t deterred her from her passion — racing motocross. Sarah said when she puts on her helmet she feels free from the stares and judgments from others. When she was in eighth grade Sarah was bullied so harshly she left public school for home school. Her meeting with Rick helped Sarah gain independence and confidence. She got a job, moved out on her own and started to study for her GED.
Jayne was raised by her grandmother after her mother abandoned her, a common occurrence for people with albinism in Eastern Africa. The society does not understand the specific health and safety needs. They are called “money” or “walking banknotes” because witch doctors will pay for their body parts. Jayne was researching albinism when she came across Rick and his work. Immediately she knew she had to meet him. She has grown into a leader in her community and helped found the first Positive Exposure branch in Kenya.
Rick, Sarah and Jayne help us recognize the limitations of dismissing people who are different and their experiences will motivate people to change public perceptions.
“On Beauty” had its world premiere the week of Oct. 13, 2014 with screenings the Chicago International Film Festival, where the film won the Audience Choice Award for best short film, and the Hot Springs Documentary Film Festival. The film has since screened all around the country including:
- Hot Springs Documentary Film Festival – Hot Springs, Ark.
- Chicago International Film Festival – Chicago – Audience Choice Award for best short film
- Rocky Mountain Women’s Film Festival – Colorado Springs, Colo.
- DOC NYC – New York City
- Big Sky Documentary Film Festival – Missoula, MT
- Frozen River Film Festival – Winona, Minn.
- ReelAbilities festivals – Houston, Cincinnati and New York
- Geneva Film Festival – Geneva, Ill. – Best Documentary Short
- Cleveland International Film Festival – Cleveland – Jury Prize for best documentary short
- Sebastopol Documentary Film Festival – Sonoma County, Calif. – Audience Award for best documentary short