Strong Women Series Co-Director Alexandra Gaulupeau Interview: Strong Body, Strong Mind

ABC iView has launched a new fascinating series called Strong Women. Co-directed by Corinne Innes and Alexandra Gaulupeau, this series follows four resilient women who empower each other while rivalling to become Australia’s strongest woman. From across the country these daughters, mothers and wives share how they have rebuilt themselves inside and out.

Andrew discussed the series, its production history, and working through Covid with co-director Alexandra below:

Andrew: Let’s start talking about how the series came about. I understand this is your first major project that you’ve done.

Alexandra: I’m originally from France, and I studied in London documentary filmmaking. And I made a short film when I was there which ended up at Hot Docs. But Strong Women is really my first project out of uni.

Andrew: The subject here is really fascinating, quite interesting. And it taps into a subculture in Australia, which I personally have not really engaged with all that much, so it was really great to be able to kind of dig into that. What’s the best kind of term for the sport?

Alexandra: The sport is called strongman. It’s a relatively niche sport, and it combines strength with endurance. So it’s not only about lifting weights. Sometimes it’s about doing as many repetitions of the lift as you can. Sometimes it’s about carrying some heavy weight over a long distance of a short period of time. So it’s not really bodybuilding, because it’s not just about strength. It also combines athletics.

Andrew: What is your personal interest in the sport? Was there something that kind of piqued your interest prior to making this series?

Alexandra: I actually met Corinne (Innes), the co-creator, over coffee, and we were just brainstorming about ideas of what we could work on a documentary together. And a lot of the topics that we came to were mainly about women and social media, and women’s representation. And then a few weeks later, Corinne went to a strongman competition through a friend that she had in common with Mari (Mariko), who is one of the athletes in the series. And that just really sparked her interest. 

And then she mentioned it to me and we went to a competition and it was just like, this is just amazing. And also just the fact that this sport is called strong men, and these women are doing things that are usually attributed to them was just fascinating to look at. We also learned so much about the women competing and their personal background. And it was just very inspiring to listen to their stories. And we just thought, ‘oh, well, you know, that will be a great online series’.

Andrew: I’ve only seen the first episode, but I’m very excited for the next two, because already the stories of the women in there are really interesting. I’m quite keen to see where it goes from here. And especially, because I understand it took quite a while like you, you found this over an extended period of time. What was that like? Obviously, there’s a lot of physicality here. There’s a lot of people doing a lot of physical things. And I guess I’m watching it with a pandemic guy, and like, ‘oh, gosh, these are these are things which we can’t always do nowadays’. We need to have social distancing and things like that. What was the filming like?

Alexandra: It’s been over three and a half years that we started working on this series. It’s been a long time making it. The storylines evolved a lot over the time. So it was actually quite challenging to edit it together, because we filmed so many competitions over three and a half years, and also trying to make sure we are always there to capture the women as their lives evolved over the years, so that was definitely a long process. 

Episode One is quite different to Episode Two, and then Episode Three. It’s quite drastic with the change in the story for us and the style. COVID kind of became a narrative switch point in the series, because, obviously, the women’s lives have been incredibly affected by COVID. A lot of them work. Out of the four women, three of them work as personal trainers, and one of them is a nurse. For the personal trainers they lost a lot of their work during the height of the pandemic. And also just competing because they live to compete and perform their strength. It has been very hard and quite disheartening for a lot of them to not have those goals that they used to have. And, you know, even if there were some competitions, you know, the audience was very limited, and it’s not, like once used to be pre COVID.

Andrew: What was it like for you as well? Did you feel yourself changing or growing as a documentarian over the years as you’re filming this?

Alexandra: Yes, definitely. Even technically, some of the decisions that we made early on, ended up being a bit challenging in the edit. We may have had two different cameras on as we were filming and the framerate problems with matching all the colour grade wasn’t identical. So it made it a bit hard for our color grader, but he did a great job, making them look seamless. Even our relationship with the women evolved as we filmed them. It can be quite frustrating that the fact that it takes so long to make the documentary, but at the same time, I think it really helps us build a stronger relationship with the women and get deeper into the story. The story evolved as we were filming as well, so I think we ended up with a lot deeper and inspiring content that we would have had if we only made a series of our year.

Andrew: One of the things that Kerryn (Taylor) says is ‘to be physically strong, equals being mentally strong as well’. I was wondering for you, as a filmmaker, what you take away from a statement like that, when you’re making a series about strong women?

Alexandra: Well, that was always something that’s really interested us in the sport. Everybody is going through things in life, but it was very inspiring that a lot of the women in sports have found that it helped them overcome past challenges. We always thought that was quite interesting. That also inspired us to start an impact campaign after the release of the series to encourage more women to join physical activity. That’s called Strong Body, Strong Mind. We are hoping to inspire more women to take part in physical activity as well as kind of switch their perspective on their body for what it can do, rather than what it looks like. 

Andrew: I think that’s one of the things I’ve taken away from the show, is the comparison between bodybuilding and how destructive that can be, because it’s all about being physically presented on stage in sparkly bikinis and muscles and fake tans, as opposed to being able to physically lift something strong, and actually feeling better because you’ve been able to lift 100 kilos, or 200 kilos. The comparison there is quite fascinating and interesting. That campaign sounds really fascinating and interesting. Especially paired with Vulcana,the group that is to help women, trans women, and non binary people be confident and be strong physically. 

I hadn’t really known about the strong women sport at all. As is mentioned at the beginning is like a 500% boom of women in this particular sport, which is great to see, because it’s quite exciting to be able to watch somebody lift up something so heavy and strong, and do it with the pride in their face to be able to say, look what I just did. There is a lot of talk about equality in different areas. But I think that we forget about sort of niche areas or, you know, sort of areas like this. I find that really fascinating and interesting, whether that was something that you had in mind, regardless of what the subject material was going into this particular kind of narrative.

Alexandra: I think what’s also very interesting in the sport is that the women are not competing against each other, they are competing to prove themselves, what they can do. And so as a competition, they’re all cheering for each other and hugging each other, so that was a very interesting spirit in a competitive sport. But also the men are very encouraging in the sport, they are always there cheering for the women and trying to help them achieve their goals. And we thought that was fantastic. 

I think this is one of the things that we discussed with Corinne very early on when we actually met over coffee. A lot of women spend a lot of time on social media, for instance, in particular Instagram, and that Instagram is really a platform that promotes the look and the image of its users. Looking at those women’s Instagram, a lot of their posts are that, you know, ‘I’ve overcome this, I feel so much better. I changed my mindset. I used to look skinny now, I look strong’. Iit was definitely some of the topics that we discussed with Corinne before finding the sport of strongman. 

I think also, what’s very inspiring, is that a lot of the women are wanting to share the stories and be quite vulnerable, not only in the documentary, but on their social channels to, you know, try to communicate with other women that, you know, it’s not a taboo topic, and some days, you don’t feel great about your body, and it’s okay, and look at your body as a vehicle to actually do those things. Actually, Kerryn had a great quote, talking about seeing your body as a vehicle, it’s the legs that make you walk, the arms that will carry your children. And you need to take care of your body. And not only see it for what it looks like, but for what it helps you achieve in life.

Andrew: It sounds like you had a really great working relationship with Corinne, can you talk about how that kind of relationship works each day? When you started the day of filming, what was the kind of discussion that you had heading into that? 

Alexandra: With Corinne, it’s actually been fantastic. Filmmaking can feel quite lonely at times, because we always believe this story needs to be told, and it’s so inspiring that everyone should watch it. In the making process it takes a lot of time to get your project developed to a stage that you will get the interest of the funders and commissioning platform. Both of us working on it together was very helpful, because as soon as one of us feels a bit down from a rejection or just not hearing back from anyone for a little while, then the other one would just pick up and keep on going. I think that was very helpful to work in a team. And to some degree, it also feels like working on this story that was so inspiring, and so much about resilience.

Andrew: It’s good to have that kind of support, especially when your show is getting launched on to ABC as well. That’s really exciting. What’s it like reaching such a wide audience through a platform like iView?

Alexandra: I think that’s gonna be fantastic and knowing that the show is going to be on my view and free for anyone to watch is just great. We just want especially women to watch it and feel better about themselves. We ended up getting funding through the Fresh Doc fund, which was released last year through COVID from the ABC, which was really a turning point for us, because we already had the support of Screen Australia who funded some of our development. We were really just looking for a platform and because COVID hit, everyone got back to us saying, ‘oh, we’re having to reduce funding at the moment’. And so we just thought, ‘oh, we have to wait for a while before we secure a platform’. But the Fresh Doc fund was really a turning point for us, because then it helped us unlocking funding through Screen Australia and Film Victoria as well. And then ended up making the series.

Andrew: Was it always intended to be a series? Or did you start off with the intention of making a feature documentary?

Alexandra: No, not at all. It was always intended as a series, a short online series. The main reason is that, from our research we found that women tend to watch more sports online, and tend to watch shorter content. And also, from all our interactions on social media with our audience, we really found that people actually spend a lot of time online and want to watch their content there. For us, it was always these formats. In terms of length, and how many episodes, that changed over the years. But it was always intended as short online content.

Andrew: I think it’s coming at the right time. It’s an unfortunate case that quite a bit of Australia is in lockdown, but I know that this kind of show will be very inspiring for a lot of women out there to be able to sit there and watch it and feel better about themselves in and maybe even to discover a sport that they didn’t know that either existed or that they didn’t know that they could do. It is such a male dominated industry that we need to say more women out there. So fingers crossed is it that kind of inspiration. 

Alexandra: Hopefully, especially at the moment with COVID. A lot of people are in a difficult situation. And, even if someone feels inspired to go on a walk four times a day, then I think that that will be fantastic.

Andrew: You were talking about the income impact campaign before. Is there a website that people can head over to find out more information about that?

Alexandra: We have more details on our website strongwomendocumentary.com, there is more detail about the Strong Body, Strong Mind campaign. And we are also fundraising for the campaign through the Australian Sports Foundation, so if you head there, we have a Strong Body, Strong Mind fundraising page where you can also find more details about it.

More Stories
Nine Questions with Le Miroir Director Leila Murton Poole – Luck, Creativity, and the Power of Collaboration